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Picture Paris and those wide, straight boulevards and tall, elegant buildings immediately spring to mind. The city is so efficiently laid out, and so instantly recognisable that it’s not hard to see that it was the vision of just one man.
Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann was largely responsible for creating central Paris as it is today; his famously rectilineal streets created to be wide enough for France’s armies to march along.
The military imperative didn’t end there. The buildings, that line the avenues, followed strict rules of height, pitch and decoration to ensure that the city would look as regimented as possible. Usually between five and seven storeys high, they were designed to allow different social classes to live under the same roof. Today those immeubles, with their decorative façades and wrought-iron balconies, are some of the world’s most sought-after residences.
He may have devised a city that became a byword for urban refinement, but Haussmann’s brief was actually much more pragmatic. Appointed in 1853 by Napoleon III, after the latter seized power during a military coup, he was told to make the imperial capital revolution-proof.
He immediately set about demolishing much of the old city centre and creating the arrondissements into which the city is still divided.
Narrow medieval streets were replaced with open spaces, public parks and long straight thoroughfares, making it harder for rioters to build effective barricades.
He then founded the Compagnie Générale des Eaux, charging it with stemming the spread of epidemics and cleaning up the city. In all, he created some 40,000 buildings, 64km of avenues and 80 squares.
“He created the first designer city in the world. Medieval Paris was pretty wretched and it’s fair to say that modern Paris as we know it would not exist without him,” says Professor Andrew Hussey, dean of the University of London Institute in Paris and author of Paris: The Secret History.
As well as setting standards for the outside appearance, Haussmann’s buildings also followed a fairly strict formula inside.
The first floor was usually the grandest, and was designed for the wealthiest families, distancing them from street noise, but not troubling them with too many stairs (elevators were still new and expensive). The ceilings became lower the higher one ascended, and the top floors were made up of a series of tiny rooms, known as chambres des bonnes (maids’ rooms), nowadays rented out as studio flats, often with a shared lavatory on the landing outside.
Inside, the main apartments have classic proportions with high ceilings, large windows and simple herringbone parquet floors that lend themselves perfectly to modern life as they provide a perfect setting for the mix of both antique and contemporary furniture which is a feature of classic French interior style.
Heidi Maude, an interior stylist who grew up in Belgium, and is a regular visitor to Paris, describes the overall look as traditional and expensive. “There is lots of classic leather or velvet sofas and bookshelves. The feel is a bit gentleman’s club or 19th-century salon.”
Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know Matters, sees the typical style as simple with a touch of opulence – a velvet chair or an oriental rug, for example.
“Apartments are so expensive that they tend to have a smaller budget for decoration. Pieces tend to be simple, striking and perhaps with black and white accents.
One feature I really notice [compared with American apartments] is the presence of books. They have an aesthetic as well as intellectual importance in the French home.”
Alon Kasha, an American who has lived in Paris for a decade and runs A+B Kasha renovating, selling and managing apartments on the Left Bank, says the emphasis is on elegance, rather than cosiness.
“Many of these Haussmannian apartments are very tired – the plumbing doesn’t work, and there’s only one bathroom, the windows are draughty and the floors need levelling. The French call it dans son jus.
“What you tend to find is that Paris is a city of second-home owners who come for the lifestyle. The Americans buy flats to restore and renovate, the French just rent them and want to live comfortably. They care much less about original plasterwork and if they need to replace the windows they might well choose uPVC, which is much cheaper.
“They also favour a new, modern sofa from Roche Bobois over a vintage Chesterfield. We might go to Gilles Nouailhac in the 7th arrondissement.”
One key characteristic of a classic Parisian apartment is the mix of old and new. An inherited desk will sit comfortably with a contemporary chair and that is, for many observers, the essence of French style.
Michael Herrman, a Franco-American architect and designer, says the French instinctively know how to mix the two styles.
“A Haussmann apartment is often regarded as a frame for what goes inside it. The classic features remain and it’s about making pieces you use look good by combining antique and contemporary.”
For this reason, walls tend to remain white; to provide a better frame or setting. Kasha says the Farrow & Ball palette of Wimborne White, Pointing and Slipper Satin are all good Parisian colours.
Textiles are natural – velvet and linen – and in muted colours such as grey or navy blue. Every marble fireplace will have a mirror over it but some will be very traditional, others very modern.
Herrman adds that while rooms may be small, there is always a proper dining area. “Walls are knocked down to create larger kitchens, but unlike in London, where a kitchen/diner is created, the Parisians will put the dining table in the living room if there isn’t room for a separate dining room – and never in the kitchen.”
Gail Boisclair, a Canadian who runs a rental business in the city, draws attention to the high ceilings (up to 3m 20cm) with floor-to-ceiling windows in the main reception rooms.
“There may be some plasterwork or moulding on the walls and the floors are usually herringbone parquet.”
Parisians who rent have had more freedom to to change the decor than in other countries, notably the UK.
“If you wanted to remove a fireplace you would need permission, but for most other changes [such as painting and wallpapering] you don’t need to ask.”
For those who do wish to buy, now may be the time. Alexander Kraft, chairman and chief executive of Sotheby’s International Realty in France, says house prices fell in 2013 which he puts down to uncertainty over the government’s fiscal reforms which, he says, have negatively affected the wealthier classes. “Most wealthy French buyers have shelved their buying plans, and the prices for typical Parisian family apartments haven fallen by about 10-15 per cent.”