How to Decorate Like a Parisian

Living room at the Merci apartment in Paris



When you picture a quintessential Parisian apartment, it’s most likely a classically elegant 19th-century Haussmanian building, with high ceilings, tall French windows, elaborately carved moldings, marble fireplaces, herringbone oak floors and wrought iron balconies. Rooms with those great bones look good in anything. But plenty of Parisians live in far less movie set apartments, yet manage to create chic, dreamy spaces with an approach that's as much about attitude and style and that can be adapted to any space.

Work with What You’ve Got

Just like a body should be dressed with clothes that fit and flatter, a room’s shape, character and history is the starting point of any good design. Many Paris apartments have quirky layouts and charming architectural details, and the French are careful not to gut renovate all the character and history out of a space.

The Merci apartment in Paris.

The stunning Merci apartment in Paris was built in 1870 and had never been renovated until 2018, when the folks behind Paris’ home decor mecca Merci concept store turned it into a living showroom, preserving every original piece of the interior architecture while bringing in modern materials and furnishings. Even if you’re starting with a more contemporary cookie cutter space without any architectural interest, add in a sense of history with vintage pieces that tell a story.

Embrace Imperfections

Not every space can be drop dead gorgeous, but any space can have charm. Highlight what’s special about your space. Resist the urge to refinish secondhand items or vintage pieces with a well-earned patina and don’t insist that everything in your house be shiny and new.

The French are known for having impeccable taste, but they know that creating a picture perfect room often entails making sure there’s one detail that feels off or an object that proudly flirts with the limits of so-called bad taste. Make sure that every room has something in it that makes you laugh or scratch your head. Don’t worry about hiding every visible computer cable or electrical wire.

Bedroom at the Merci apartment in Paris.

Don’t Overstage 

A modern Parisian interior design aesthetic is an exercise in style but is never overstyled. Don’t try to finish a room down to its last set of painstakingly staged coffee table tchotchkes and karate-chopped throw pillows. Don’t erect an elaborate fortress of throw pillows that must be conquered every time you have an urge to tumble into bed. Parisians don’t obsess over thread count but keep it simple with chicly rumpled natural linens that look great no matter how unmade the bed. Celebrate the beauty of everyday objects like tableware and bath linens and don’t hide away all of your books or restrict yourself to art that matches your color scheme. A home should never have a fixed style but be a work in progress that changes along with your life.

Mix But Don't Match

Parisians embrace history but don’t want to live in a museum, and the best Parisian interiors mix periods and styles—family heirlooms, found objects, travel souvenirs, contemporary furniture and vintage accents—for a look that’s individual and personal. If you don’t have a French grandmother or access to Paris flea markets, incorporate antiques and vintage pieces sourced online. Avoid buying all of your furniture from a single store. Don’t stick to one style but aim for a more lived-in, eclectic atmosphere that feels assembled over time. 

Hotel Henriette in Paris.
Hotel Henriette

Don't Sacrifice Beauty for Comfort

Parisians never give in to the idea that comfort alone is enough of a virtue to justify keeping an ugly sofa or buying a utilitarian bed frame that merely does the job. Instead, they maintain high standards, ensuring that every item looks as good as it feels. There are too many choices at every price point to violate this cardinal rule.

City of Lighting

Apartments in the City of Light will often include overhead lighting in the form of classic chandeliers or dramatic modern suspension lights, but never rely on an overhead fixture as a single source of lighting, as it won’t flatter the room (or you). Parisian apartments rarely include can ceiling lights or dimmers; instead they use a multitude of light sources to create different atmospheres and moods, mixing table lamps, task lights, floor lamps, wall sconces and candlelight in all four corners of a room for balance.

Hotel Henriette in Paris.
Hotel Henriette

Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better

Most Parisian apartments are modestly proportioned, requiring clever space planning and ingenuity. Designed by Vanessa Scoffier, the rooms at Paris’ Hotel Henriette beautifully epitomize the modern aesthetic of a Parisian apartment by using simple materials, bold dashes of color, strong graphics and vintage pieces to maximize design in a small space. You will never see a bloated sectional dominating a Paris studio apartment or an oversized refrigerator taking up precious space in a tiny kitchen. The French appreciate modern comforts, but they are also deeply practical and manage to host holiday meals without enormous kitchens or dining rooms or friends and family without dedicated guest rooms. Think about how you live in a space 90% of the time and design around those needs.

Add a Classic French Touch

It might not be realistic to add a marble fireplace or elaborate moldings to your space, but a gilded mirror, a vintage chandelier, European square linen pillow shams or wallpaper that mimics classic architectural flourishes will add an instantly recognizable French touch to any room. And of course there is no shame in paying homage to the city's most famous landmark with an Eiffel Tower statue, photo or wall mural to summon a Paris view.

A wallpaper medallion on the ceiling adds architecture to a plain room.
Rebel Walls