As part of my cultural research before my very first trip to Paris, I took it upon myself to watch as much French New Wave cinema as time would allow. Every evening was a night of viewing a film by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Éric Rohmer (to name a few). Having been exposed to movies like Breathless, Keeping to himselfand Perriot le Fou years ago by my far more sophisticated sister, I had always understood the inherent freshness of the 1960s/1970s aesthetic (hello, Jane Birkin), but diving deep into those films reminded me of how incredibly (and yes, effortlessly) chic the set design was. And then it hit me: interior design in French New Wave movies is the perfect inspiration for interior design.
Francophiles like me already look to the French for inspiration in everything from our wardrobes to the way we stock our kitchens, but there’s something so special about style during this particular movement. If you’re less familiar with the French New Wave, it was an experimental style of cinema that began in the mid-20th century and often focused on existentialist themes. Because this style favored realism, the environments created in the films were often quite lived-in and natural. “French Nouvelle Vague films from the iconoclastic 60s and 70s are perfect for gathering inspiration for today’s lifestyles,” says the interior designer Stephanie Parisi. “They’re all about a clean look with a few classic pieces – whether traditional or mid-century – and are kind of a dreamy, transitional look.”
There has always been this I do not know what, of course – a 60s mod sensibility mixed with the not-too-fussy French way of life. What resulted, as far as interior design went, were minimalist spaces that included a few signature touches (think saturated colors, bold patterns, and clever arrangement of objects) to make it personal. “French New Wave films produced a very conscious set design of the current era, a radical social and political rebellion (women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights and anti-war) which influenced art and the major thought-provoking designs.” explains Christiane Lemieux, designer and founder of LEMIEUX & CIE. “The set design was imaginative and layered with multiple scenarios set in an eclectic reality.”
As you can imagine, achieving this kind of effortless aesthetic in your interior is actually harder than it looks. Sure, you can do your own deep dive into this cinematic universe (you’ll likely be inspired by more than just the decor!), but getting styling tips from the pros helps, too. That said, TZR contacted highly respected interior designers and stylists using five different French New Wave films as examples to find out how you can realistically capture a similar feel in your space. Get all the information – and so much inspiration – in advance.
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Happiness, a melancholic film about the love and fidelity of Agnès Varda, is a perfect example of the director’s dreamy imagery and brilliant use of color and composition. For Layne Povey, lead designer at The Lynden Lane Co., the attention to feminine touches is a key takeaway. “A modern way to recreate this film’s emphasis on flowers and personal details is to take inspiration from 1969 – the prints and patterns of Woodstock,” she suggests. “Pulling from matching floral dresses and fringed tassels, this piece will be a gathering place in your home. Stackable vintage cases of vinyl records will keep the gathering lively as guests dance on the hardwood floors until they collapse on a long pastel lounge chair.
Find character in even the small details of the room by sprinkling antique pieces or showing off your heirlooms. This French bronze vase is a perfect example of how not all the elements to achieve the French New Wave aesthetic have to come from the 1960s or 1970s! Add romantic florals and a monochrome palette and you have the Happiness see.
My Night at Maud’s
Maud, the main character of Eric Rohmer’s 1969 film My night at Maud’s, is a modern woman in every way. She is successful, independent, and progressive in her approach to relationships, and this is reflected in her stylish, mostly Mid-Century style apartment. This minimalist space is made more personal by the amount of books strewn everywhere, as Povey notes. Achieve this effect easily by stacking books throughout the room: flanking the fireplace, stacked on shelves, and of course proudly displayed in a standout bookcase like Maud’s.
Subtext and symbolism are common themes in French New Wave films, and Contempt (Where Contempt) is a perfect example of this, including how it translates into its sets. The apartment the central couple shares is particularly notable with its mix of sleek mid-century furniture, a few key bright colors (a common thread in Godard’s films), and sculptural rooms with plenty of negative space. If you’re looking to add such intense colors to a room in your home, you can take Povey’s advice. “When working with a saturated color, like oxblood red, it’s essential to keep all other materials, furniture, and decor in complementary neutral tones,” she explains. “For example, you can add an accent wall in a dark color and allow it to be the focal point of your room with the furniture arranged, so it draws you into that backsplash.”
If you are not convinced by bright colors, you can invest in similar furniture. This LEMIEUX ET CIE sofa is a perfect contemporary example that uses color in a softer way while keeping the lines close to those of the film.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Director Jacques Demy was gifted with color. In fact, it has been widely reported that his movie Umbrellas of Cherbourg inspired the aesthetic (as well as other elements) of The Earth, a film defined by color. Each set in this musical drama features vibrant shades as well as bold patterns, and Demy often plays specifically with complementary and analogous color combinations. Try a peel and stick wallpaper in a classic pattern (floral damask, wide stripes) but saturated hues to instantly achieve that effect with a major payoff. But, as Povey explains, you’ll want to balance that focal point to really get the French Nouvelle Vague aesthetic. “This film calls for contrast in your space,” she says. “Antique Elements should send you straight to the local thrift or thrift shop, where you can pick up an eclectic mix of chairs and mixed metal accessories to match the colors of the de Gournay.”
Cleo from 5 to 7
In Varda’s previous film, Cleo from 5 to 7, the main character is a French pop singer facing an imminent diagnosis. Because of this, Cleo features a noticeable juxtaposition of charming foam and underlying sadness. Take his bedroom, for example. This loft-style space is mostly sparse and white, but features contrasting feminine details like a four-poster bed, a handful of Persian rugs, and even a swing. Want to achieve a similar feel in your bedroom? As Povey explains, less is more. “Cléo inspires us to Marie Kondo our space and sparks joy with less,” she shares. “Focus on a few elegant accents of natural botanicals in a subtly colored vase or patterned rug leading to a four-poster bed with soft drapery surrounding a romantic space.”