We chucked out our chintz long ago. But that doesn't mean country can't be cool, says James Sherwood
TOWN AND country style are the oil and water of interior design. Town is streamlining towards the millennium. Country is stuck in a nineteenth- century time-warp. The prospect of bringing them together would, you'd think, have the same chance of success as a blind date between John Pawson and Jocasta Innes.

Nick Ronald and David Roberts, designers behind the three Grand Illusions interiors shops and the Maison mail order catalogue, have got the balance right. Their French provincial furniture, painted and distressed in the softest tones, are modern rustic which work equally well in urban and country interiors.

"Farmhouse. Ugh! It has such horrible connotations," says Ronald with a sigh. "As you can see, we live in a railway cottage in Twickenham and we opened the first shop here ten years ago. This is not furniture for people who want to pretend they live in the country. Who wants to live in a farmhouse? We choose pieces that work in the city".

It is a tough proposition to break down the Grand Illusions collection and understand why antique furniture, painted to look slightly distressed, is so right for now. "We call it New Country," says Homes & Gardens deputy editor Gabi Tubbs. "Grand Illusions colour is very fresh, clean and alive. You can make these pieces look streamlined and contemporary or full-on country. I have trawled the antiques markets for furniture for my house in Provence. I have never found anything even half as good as Grand Illusions."

"When we launched ten years ago, nobody was doing painted furniture," says Roberts, "apart from the Swedish pieces, with very carefully drawn flower motifs. We wanted to fill the gap between the elitist interior designers and the more mass market shops. I think our pieces are an enigma because they have a feeling of age, of craftsmanship but they aren't necessarily priced beyond 90 per cent of the population's range." Simply waxed without the Grand Illusions paint techniques, a writing desk is pounds 275. Painted, it is pounds 350. Larger pieces like the new triple linen chest which has been one-colour aged (in vanilla, pistachio, blush or duck egg) hover around the pounds 1,000 mark.

We are seeing a softening of hard-edged interiors: even in the urban environment, we are not going back to clutter. Now we've pared down to the essentials, there is no turning back. "Gradually, design has developed a softer, more human aesthetic," says Wallpaper interiors associate Toni Spencer. "It is softer on the eye as well as to the touch. It's not only softer colour but softer textures like suedes and fake furs that we'd humanise a Wallpaper interior with."

The beauty of Grand Illusion colour is how it can lighten a room with a low ceiling and very little natural light.You'd think Grand Illusions colour has to be seen in person rather than picked out of a cleverly-lit catalogue. Actually, selected shots in Maison are styled in Ronald and Roberts' railway cottage, which has little natural light and a typically Victorian low ceiling. About a third of the Grand Illusions business comes from their mail order book, Maison.

"It amazes us that our customers trust us to paint pieces they will not see in situ until the delivery date," says Ronald. "I think the beauty of the catalogue is that we can shoot beautiful room sets. Our shops are relatively small and we don't have the luxury of space to design entire room sets in each shop." You'd think vast pieces of furniture like the 22-drawer chest (pounds 525 waxed) would dominate a room with relatively low ceilings. But the delicacy of the natural pastel paintwork visibly lightens what is essentially a heavy piece of furniture. It is undeniably the paint techniques and the eye for colour Ronald and Roberts share which makes Grand Illusions furniture so desirable. Even Pawson couldn't fault the simplicity of a vanilla pot board dresser (pounds 650) displaying cream crockery tone-on-tone.

For the tenth anniversary collection, Ronald and Roberts have chosen the Long Island country style and colour palette. It's that Jackie Kennedy in Martha's Vineyard level of sophistication. The colours of their paint range - duck egg blue, buttermilk, citrus yellow and deep sea green - are delicate and fresh. "Everyone and their aunt has launched a paint range," says Ronald. "Most are emulsion. Ours are an acrylic distemper deliberately designed to age on our furniture. People ask us if colours will date. If you take your cue from the natural world, then I don't think they do".

For the Maison catalogue, telephone 0181 892 2151