Here’s How to Get French-Inspired Interior Design Style on an IKEA Budget, According to Experts
French design fervor is — and always has been — so real. That quintessentially Parisian, laidback-meets-luxe-looking aesthetic feels even more in demand recently, and it makes sense: The style prizes effortless beauty and vintage charm while also entertaining a certain amount of escapism and wanderlust that many have been craving the past two years.
What exactly is French interior design in the first place, though? Lance Thomas, lead designer of Louisiana-based Thomas Guy Interiors, nods to the “laissez faire” mindset, which he translates as “letting things take their own course without interfering.” In terms of home design, that equates to “relaxed, recycled, and refined” spaces overall that defy trend cycles and have become thoughtfully decorated over time. “French style is also curated and collected,” he adds. “The design process begins with the chase for what you find and what moves you. It’s very romantic when you think about it.”
Kitchen designer Caren Rideau also calls out a few textbook French motifs. “A French interior almost always has curtains on the windows, light or white colored walls, fresh flowers in unique vases, light fixtures hanging from the ceilings, table linens, layered fabrics with throws, and books displayed in open shelves,” she says.
Luckily, you don’t need a château — or an accompanying high-end budget — to master the straight-out-of-Paris style stateside. I spoke with a handful of design experts about how to achieve that certain je ne sais quoi for less, especially within small spaces. Read on for shopping tips, affordable DIY projects, easy styling hacks, and more, so you can make any space instantly feel like it’s plucked from the City of Light.
Strike a blend of new and old
Meghan Donovan, the blogger behind wit + whimsy and a self-proclaimed Francophile, worked with a decorator to conceptualize her Brooklyn-meets-Paris apartment design (pictured above and featured on our site). One of the biggest takeaways from the experience? “The value of adding in vintage pieces mixed with newer, more modern [items],” says Donovan, who suggests searching for terms like “vintage French perfume bottles,” “vintage French trays,” or “vintage French fabrics” on Etsy to pair with any particularly of-the-moment accents in your own home. “All of those things add a ton of personality without having to cost a ton,” she adds. “Obviously, there are certain pieces that run a little bit more expensive, but I’ve had a lot of luck with great sellers.”
Revamp your window treatments
Interior designer Ashley Piomelli Londino is known for her blog, Spackle and Shine, where she details how to achieve “Versailles taste on a Pittsburgh budget.” Among her many cost-efficient, French-inspired home projects, she explains that an IKEA curtain hack remains one of her simplest (and most affordable) to date. “You can custom French pleat and add a custom border to an IKEA curtain to truly transform your space and create window dressings that look very expensive,” she says. “I’ve done this in multiple rooms in my home, and people always ask where they are from and are shocked when I tell them the price.”
Don’t be afraid of asymmetry
Say au revoir to cookie-cutter floor plans. According to Thomas, one core tenet of Parisian-influenced design is the fact that “the furniture layout does not have to be symmetrical and centered,” an ideal setup for decorating small spaces. “If you only have room for a comfy sofa and a funky chair, all the better,” he adds. “French style will help make that feel more intentional.”
Let there be (ornate-looking) light
In her own apartments, both past and present, Donovan has elected to swap out existing light fixtures for more alluring pendants and chandeliers — and yes, fellow renters, you can do the same. A local handyman helped Donovan install her new lamps for about $100, and she stored the originals under her bed until moving out. For luxe lighting, she also suggests sourcing pieces from Etsy, where you’ll find both authentic French vintage and lookalike styles (just note that the former will likely be wired for European electricity). Recently, Donovan’s even paired every fixture up with ceiling medallions, too, which she bought at The Home Depot for around $20 a piece. “They were really inexpensive, and they make everything look way more unique,” Donovan adds.
DIY faux architectural details
Browse Pinterest or Instagram for French design inspiration, and you’ll probably see one distinct detail throughout: picture frame molding. There’s no shortage of get-the-look tutorials, but Londino breaks down her own tried-and-true, rental-friendly method. “Rather than attaching the molding with a per entrant solution like wood glue or a nail gun, use Command Strips and some painter’s tape,” she explains. “You simply cut the length of the molding to size and then apply the adhesive strips to the back of the molding (I recommend two to three strips per piece of trim). Before applying to the wall, make sure your piece is going to be straight and spaced correctly (I recommend using a laser level and painters’ tape), and voilà — you have moldings like you’d find in an old Parisian apartment, and when it’s time to leave you simply just peel it off!” You can also find readymade peel-and-stick moldings on Etsy, too.
Play with colorful furniture
Modern European interiors may conjure images of predominantly muted palettes or timeless black-on-white pairings, but that’s not always the case. “French style is perfect for renters because it tends to incorporate bold, vibrant colors in the furniture pieces themselves and not necessarily on the walls,” says Thomas, who designed the room pictured above. “Keep your apartment walls neutral so you don’t have to repaint when you move — and let that vintage velvet flea market find sofa do all the heavy lifting in the pop of color department.”
Concentrate on small touches
You don’t need a floor-to-ceiling French-inspired makeover for the full très chic design effect. The Brooklyn house tour pictured above, for example, feels Parisian with curated vignettes in the bedroom and dining room, while the remainder of the space leans more mid-century modern. On a more miniature scale, Londino also emphasizes the power of a quick hardware upgrade for doors, dressers, and beyond. “Adding a cabinet cremone bolt or antique lion head pulls to your IKEA cabinet can completely change it from something boring to something fabulous in a matter of minutes,” she explains. “We did this in our basement bathroom, and it’s the post I always get the most love and most questions about (and it was one of the easiest DIY’s I’ve ever done).”
Scope out local flea markets or thrift stores
All expert sources agree on one overarching tip: Shop secondhand to source those true one-of-a-kind, heirloom-worthy pieces (oftentimes on a dime). “Local estate sales, thrift/Goodwill stores, Facebook Marketplace, and online auction sites like AuctionNinja and LiveAuctioneers are my go to spots when looking for French pieces,” says Londino. “It’s honestly so worthwhile to take a little extra time to rummage through a local store to try to find a treasure that no one else has and create a curated and unique space rather than one that resembles your neighbors down the street.”
Even if you uncover a vintage or thrifted piece that could benefit from a French-influenced facelift, “don’t be afraid to pick up a paintbrush and paint on your own,” notes Rideau. Just a bit of metallic Rub ‘n Buff finish can go a long way in creating the perfectly patinated, antique golden hue on a mirror, decorative accessory, or shelf!