Country Decorating Style
The search for country things -- painted and unpainted furniture, quilts, baskets, folk art -- began in the '20s and '30s when a few savvy collectors realized their merit.
By the late '70s, there was a full-blown craze for ladder-back chairs and other items associated with the country look.
All of America had been introduced to the enduring beauty of handmade rag rugs and quilts. It was the beginning of a welcome, livable approach to decorating, and it helped fan a new enthusiasm for antique-hunting, flea markets, and tag sales that is still evident today.
Well-known decorators like Sister Parrish had incorporated country pieces into their designs for years, but now everyone was on the bandwagon.
Versatile treasures like tilt-top tables and Windsor chairs were suddenly in vogue in upscale Manhattan apartments.
In the years that have passed, country elements have grown no less popular. A more sophisticated and refined approach now exists, but the appreciation for handmade, well-crafted furniture and accessories has continued and broadened with each generation.
Visited over the years by countless influences and assimilating design contributions from around the world, "country" has evolved into an umbrella term encompassing American, English, and French styles as well as those detailed below.
Even rustic Adirondack chairs, the colorful Native American blankets and rugs of the Southwest, garden furniture from across the Atlantic, and early 19th-century porcelain china have found a place in country style.
Components differ according to a variety of factors like personal taste and region, but every country room, whether trimmed down in a more contemporary mode or rich with layers lovingly collected over time, exudes a comfortable, relaxed spirit and so can yours.
The simple, unpretentious look of American country is easily adaptable. Create warm, cozy rooms as the early settlers did, or like a flag unfurling, aim for open, more modern country spaces. What can be the starting point? Colors like our Founders knew -- cheery barn-red, yellow, dark green, gray, buttermilk, rust, and straw -- or marriages of neutral walls with trim done up in heady colors such as blue and wine-red. For a contemporary country look, especially in a small space, paint your room's walls, trim, and ceiling cream or soft white.
Floors? Refinish wood floors to reflect light and show off their grain, or paint a classic pattern of diamonds as a stunning foil for a carefully composed vignette of classic 18th- and 19th-century American antiques. Pre-finished look-alike wood floors -- available in a variety of wood types -- are an up-to-date alternative for heavily trafficked rooms like kitchens and living rooms. Floor-cloths, flat-weave rugs, and thick rag rugs help pump up the interest level.
Let the breezes tug at the hems of simple window treatments. Roman shades or half curtains in natural fabrics like cotton, linen, and wool are alluring. From seat cushions to table napkins, you will find simple, off-the-loom patterns work best. For instance, look to plaids, checks, and stripes, in hues like spongeware-blue, lime-green, and butter-yellow.
Furnishings are restrained but welcoming for friends and family. Sofas and chairs should be constructed for years of sitting; dining tables should be generous enough for a crowd; beds should be indulgent: piled with blankets and pillows in winter, stripped down to fresh-off-the-line cotton sheets in summer.
Choose accessories to foster an American country attitude: patchwork quilts to hang as art, baskets, hand-carved toys, tinware, and chunky creamware pitchers and bowls. Clean-lined Shaker or raised panel cabinets, a mix of glass and solid doors together, or a combination of wood-tone and painted cupboards will keep the momentum going in the kitchen.
Show off your collection of black iron pans or copper pots without letting them jumble; a few favorites are best. As for the bath, claw-foot tubs and old-style sinks are readily available today. Or a standard white tub encased in tongue-and-groove paneling or slate is another idea our ancestors would applaud.
Lay durable ceramic tiles in country-like checkerboard designs on walls and floors; include Shaker-style peg rails to hold towels and robes; and designate wooden cabinet hideaways for everyday toiletries. As night falls, light the candles in a wrought-iron chandelier. American country style is a celebration of simplicity.
Get the Look
- Recruit reproduction Windsor chairs to paint in new country colors.
- Hunt for old burnished wood pieces to lend authenticity.
- Anchor small items on trays or in baskets.
Oooh La LaHow could French country -- also known as French provincial -- be anything less than charming? France is renowned for its food, its wine, and its appreciation of the good life and all things romantic including its well-loved 18th-century toile de Jouy (commonly referred to as just "toile") patterns peppered with endearing images of pastoral life. Today, in a rainbow of colors as well as hip black and white, toile is available as everything from wallpaper to accessories.
Build a living room around a striking black-and-white combination or a bedroom featuring a soft blue toile the color of a wildflower. Because toile generally has only one color on a neutral background, it mixes pleasingly with patterns.
Layer in striped, checked, or solid accent pillows that use the dominant color from your print. Typical French-country window treatments include lace, cotton, or simple panels of unbleached linen hung from iron rods; in a more formal country room, try striped taffeta in a sunbaked shade like tangerine. White or color-washed walls in soft tones like peach, honey, and dusty rose combined with a terra-cotta-tiled floor are guaranteed to evoke a French mystique.
For furnishings, look to gently curved armchairs, a decoratively carved or painted armoire (the most important furniture piece in provincial homes, armoires can be traced back to the 14th century and can serve today's needs by housing your TV), a farmhouse dining table, and simple ladder-back chairs with rush seats.
If you have trouble finding antique versions of all your wanted French decor, furniture manufacturers offer a wealth of fitting reproductions including beguiling sofas and love seats to combine with antiques and tag-sale finds.
To imbue a kitchen or bath with the flavor of Provence, choose cabinetry with an antique white or mellow wood finish. And suspend a chandelier with dainty fabric shades from the ceiling. Consider adding French elements such as paintings or prints echoing the impressionist's palette, hand-painted tiles, murals, glazed or unglazed pottery, and delicate bed linens to complement a carved pine or fruitwood bed.
Get the Look
- Include one or two more formal pieces along with casual furnishings.
- Re-cover the seats of curvy armchairs with cheerful checks or stripes.
- Hang a collection of pretty porcelain plates on the wall instead of a painting.
- Incorporate more curves, such as a wire lamp or plant stand, a still-life of finials along the mantel, or a half-round table with cabriole legs.
Tea for TwoEnglish country is confident; patterns, colors, furniture styles, and periods are mixed. Nix anything that appears too new; time's patina is perfect. Sun-bleached chintzes in all the colors of a summer garden and slightly worn rugs -- piled atop a sea of sisal or a bare wood floor -- mimic a Cotswold farmhouse.
Evoke a British mood by painting walls the color of thick cream to maximize light. For richness, introduce jolts of ocher (deep reddish brown) or cantaloupe. Wood paneling up to dado (the lower part of the wall) level is very pretty. Paint or wallpaper the upper portion of the wall with thin stripes, a small geometric design, trellises, or flowers.
Create a subtle link between the wallpaper and the slipcovers with color or pattern but nothing too studied; the most charming English country rooms look as though they have slowly evolved. Tartans, tweeds, paisley shawls, chenille, cashmere, or simple gingham, the choice of fabrics allows something for almost every taste. Window treatments can be straightforward, unlined curtains or, for a more formal country-estate scene, a valance pared with drapery panels.
What furnishings do you need to complete the English country look? Consider timeless varieties such as comfy sofas and armchairs in the living room, a chaise by the bedroom window, or a scrubbed pine dining table. Coordinate heirlooms with flea-market finds, and arrange informal displays of collectibles. In the kitchen, fine-grained hardwood cabinets would cheerfully complement freestanding pieces like cupboards and hutches.
Get the Look
- Pluck your color scheme from a collection of English chintzware porcelains you've amassed on a shelf.
- Designate a tray-style table as a coffee table.
- Order roomy slipcovers for comfy down-filled seating.
- Replace the inset of a kitchen door or dining room cabinet with shirred gingham.
A Farmhouse in the HillsTuscan country is a seductive mosaic of pattern, texture, and color. More tactile than any of the other styles, the Tuscan or Mediterranean demeanor features rough-plastered walls in sun-washed hues and hard floors of terra-cotta tiles, stone, cement, or unpolished marble. It's a look that favors warm climates, but due to modern technology, it's possible even in northern regions where ambient heat can render floors as warm as toast.
And, these days, paints of many colors are available to replicate the effects of sun and age.
Furnishings and accessories are carefully chosen and kept to a minimum in Mediterranean homes. A dining room, for example, may hold only an antique table and a handful of carefully edited, mismatched chairs.
Offsetting the minimalist arrangement could be opulent window treatments (velvet drapes with sheers, for instance) or a tapestry wall hanging reminiscent of an ancient mural. Cook up your own Roman spell with pictorial wallcoverings depicting rural scenes. Unpainted furniture, pottery, baskets, and candle-holding sconces give more flavor to the Tuscan home.
Get the Look
- Stage a utilitarian centerpiece; for instance, fill a large iron basket with fresh fruit on a tile counter.
- Order a deep soapstone sink.
- Lay a tapestry runner down the length of a rustic table.
Rustic BravadoSimilar to American style but more eclectic, rustic country includes exposed roughhewn wood beams, open rafters, and wide-plank floors. It's a pioneer cabin kind of ambience that calls for a fire on the hearth, a supply of cozy textiles, and a warm palette of earth tones accented with autumnal hues like red and gold.
Many of the treasures you would find in a lakeside camp or mountain hideaway are here: a freshwater pike mounted over the fireplace, a pair of snowshoes in the corner, a fishing rod by the door. Vintage signs and old photographs adorn the unpainted, wood-paneled walls. In addition to twig rockers and settees, there are comfy sofas and chairs slipcovered in plaids or large, cotton checks. Windows are bare or fitted with simple burlap panels or wood shutters. Accessories? Look to hand-blown bottles, pressed ferns under glass, birdhouses, and, the topper, a real canoe hoisted to the ceiling.
Inspired by Southwestern decorating, forgo paneling for stucco or plaster walls, and stockpile colorful Native American blankets and rugs. A terra-cotta floor and a few pieces of ebony wrought iron nod to the region's colonial Spanish influence; a bleached cow skull is a tribute to Southwest painter Georgia O'Keefe.
A ski lodge could take it up a notch, substituting leather-upholstered seating and faux-fur throws (to toss on chairs and beds) for hooked rugs and afghans. If the structure permits, make everything from your four-poster bed to the potted cactus in the dining room over-scaled to dish up home-on-the-range, big-sky magic.
Get the Look
- Collect vintage Pendleton and Beacon blankets to display on sofas and over chairs.
- Lay folksy patterned rugs beside beds and in front of sinks.
- House electronic gear in a distressed cabinet or an antique pie safe with tin-paneled doors.
Like country decorating, contemporary decorating can be warm and inviting. On the next page, learn about this sophisticated style that -- nowadays -- frequently embraces environmentally sound design principles.
To learn more about interior design and get tips and information on decorating your home, visit:
- Interior Decorating: Get tips on how to decorate your home and read about organizing a project and selecting an interior design that fits your lifestyle.
- Home Decorating Tips: Learn about home decorating styles and get tips on how to plan and complete decorating projects.
- Decorating a Room: Find out how to decorate a room from floor-to-ceiling.
- How to Design a Kitchen: Create a kitchen that works for you and get tips on how to choose and place appliances and create a decorating scheme.
- Kids Rooms: Get tips on decorating your child’s room, with information on colors, smart strategies, and money-saving tips.