The 17th and 18th century French monarchy—partial to flamboyant, florid excesses as well as delicate, feminine lines—had a tremendous impact on furniture design as we know it today. This is because French kings and queens insisted on the highest quality in all aspects of their palaces, hiring the most innovative and skilled craftsmen in Europe.

French revivalist furniture draws from three main time periods: those under the reigns of Kings Louis XIV (1661-1715), a.k.a. "The Sun King"; King Louis XV (1723-74), who birthed the over-the-top Rococo era; and King Louis XVI (1774-89), who was executed by guillotine, along with his wife, Marie Antoinette, in the French Revolution.

Characteristics of antique French-style furniture are easy to spot: Curving, "cabriole" chair legs inspired by animals' hind legs; sinewy serpentine lines; embellishments featuring everything from swirling scrolls and arabesques to intricate, grotesque scenes; "boullework" surfaces made of brass inlaid into ebony or tortoiseshell; ornamental brass corner mounts of "ormolu," or bronze treated to look like gold; and sumptuous pastel silk upholstery with floral needlework.

Louis XIV, whose goal was to shape the Palace of Versailles into a magnificent tribute to his own glory, employed designer Charles Le Brun, as well as Europe's finest craftsmen. Even the smallest visual motifs like the sunburst and the fleur-de-lys, or two interlocking L's, honored the Sun King.

Naturally, the Sun King demanded nothing less than the most expensive materials possible, exotic woods, silver and gilt, and imported lacquer. For the first time in the history of furniture, comfort was made a priority. In the 17th century, French intellectuals developed a fondness for salons—gatherings to discuss to art, literature, and politics—so French furniture designers were asked to devise new, more comfortable ways to sit. The "fauteuil" an upholstered armchair with open sides, and the "canapé," or early couch, grew in popularity as commodes and bureaus replaced armoires for storage and display. The fauteil is still a mainstay of French furnishing. Eventually, upholstered pads were added to the top of the fauteil armrests for even greater comfort.

The King’s most famous cabinetmaker, André-Charles Boullé, one of myriad craftsmen lodged in the Louvre, became synonymous with an Italian form of marquetry originally known as "tasia a incastro." The technique—which involves cutting intricate patterns or scenes into a material like brass and inlaying it into tortoiseshell or ebony—came to be called "boullework," even though Jean Bérain's fanciful work at the Louvre was just as influential. This kind of marquetry was also made out of ivory, copper, silver, or mother-of-pearl. Other Louis XIV embellishments included Italian "pietra dura," or mosaics of semiprecious stones, and geometric parquetry floors.

When young Louis XV, grandson to the Sun King, took over the throne, he had Juste-Aurèle Meissonier remodel his bedroom in an over-the-top asymmetrical fashion featuring an extra...

As the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour wielded her influence to demand delicate, decorative pieces for her salons, Louis XV furniture became airier, curvier, and more petite than items of the past. Extravagant carvings, painted wood, and boullework with fantastic designs were all the rage, often integrated into commodes, the most prestigious and lavishly decorated of all furnishings.

When upholstery became more readily available in the 18th century under Louis XV's extravagant Rococo reign, armchairs called "bergéres" included fabric-covered panels between the arms and seats. Stretcher supports disappeared from French chairs after the invention of curved "cabriole" legs.

Most Rococo chairs were designed to sit against a wall. In fact, the heavy "siège meuble" was not designed to be moved at all. The pastel, intricately embroidered silk of the seats and backs, was an integral part of the design of a room, meant to complement the patterns and colors of the adjacent wall paneling. To accommodate the opulent fashions of the day, chair arms were shortened to account for hoop skirts, while chair backs were lowered to spare huge coiffures.

Commodes and bureaus were adorned with ornamental mounts of brass or ormolu. Those by Charles Cressent, called "espagnolettes," were shaped like the women found in the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau. This painter also brought the concept of "fête galante," images of wealthy lovers in garden settings, to home decor.

Neoclassicism came into vogue in Europe about the same time Louis XVI took the throne, so during his reign, extravagance of French Rococo style was tamed, ever so subtly, by Classical symmetry. Furnishings became more rectangular and geometric, with tapered legs preferred over cabrioles. Items were often painted, and usually incorporated boullework, pieces of painted and foiled glasses called "verre églomisé," or recycled 17th century panels based on romantic notions of Chinese and Japanese culture. Landscapes, architectural composition, and vases or baskets of flowers were popular motifs.

The original handmade Baroque and Rococo furnishings from the 17th and 18th centuries are almost exclusive to museums. However, these looks were revived in the 19th century with industrialization, which allowed elaborate pieces that had been once handcrafted at tremendous cost to be produced easily and cheaply. That's why most collectible antique French-style furniture on the market today dates from the mid-1800s on.

In response to the political and social unrest of industrialization, mass-produced 19th-century French furniture expressed nostalgia for the Golden Age of the French monarchy, relishing in the opulence of Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles. This furniture typically features carved wooden frames that were gilded or painted with molding carved in the shapes of scrolls, faces, and arched crests; legs that curve or taper; feet that scroll or end in claws or hooves; and fine silk upholstery embroidered with delicate flowers.

In post-monarchy 19th century, these ornate furnishings, once only available to aristocrats, were made available to the burgeoning middle class, thanks to machines that could produce decorative mounts, wood carvings, and marquetry both quickly and cheaply. The styles of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI—as well as Renaissance and Gothic looks—were all revived in the same time period, harkening back to France's Golden Age, as the trends focused on decoration as opposed to innovation. The public took to glamorous Sun King themes, boullework, needlepoint upholstery, and ormolu mounts.

Revivalist Louis XV furnishings were more fluid and dainty than the originals. You can distinguish between Louis XV-style and Louis XVI-style chairs based on their shapes; the former are curvier with cabrioles, the later more rectilinear with tapered legs. Nineteenth-century cabinetmakers favored woods imported from France's colonies like mahogany and ebony, while cast or wrought iron and papiér mâché infused modern techniques. Even though it was more common, Rococo furniture still indicated social status based on what material one could afford, as gilt bronze, ivory, and mother-of-pearl were prohibitively expensive.

With the widespread use of coiled springs, seating became even more comfortable, particularly "tapissier" chairs, named after the richly embroidered fabrics that covered them. The Victorians put their own prudent spin on French Rococo, inventing chairs like "canapé borne," "dos-à-dos," and "boudeuse," on which lovers could sit beside each other and talk without touching. Casters, making it possible to roll chairs from one room to another, also set 19th-century pieces apart from the originals.

Mid-19th century French cabinetmaker Gabriel Viardot, like the Baroque and Rococo craftsmen before him, was particularly enamored with Japanese and Chinese decor. However, Viardot had more access to real Far Eastern design than his forebears. He gave French grotesque masks an Eastern look and carved Asian demons and dragons into his "Japonisme" and "Chinoiserie" work, bridging the gap between exotic imports and local craftsmanship.

In the 20th century, French artisans also contributed a tremendous amount to the Art Nouveau movement, with its sleeker and more modern curves that paid tribute to the natural forms of flowers and women—as well as the following Art Deco movement, which offered a more restrained, geometric look for furniture.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Buffalo Architecture and History

Buffalo Architecture and History

Chuck LaChiusa's wonderful guide to the architecture and history of Buffalo, NY, also happens to host an impressive… [read review or visit site]



This beautiful site showcases the collection of Stanley and Polly Stone of Fox Point, Wisconsin, consisting of earl… [read review or visit site]

Kentucky Online Arts Resource

Kentucky Online Arts Resource

This huge online database from the Speed Art Museum is a rich trove of beautiful photos and reference information o… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

C.1890 Antique French 8 Day Crystal Ball Desk Clock By Bailey Banks & Biddle NrSuperb Design ~ French Czech Art Deco Acid Etched Peach Glass Table Lamp 1920sMid Century Corner Cabinet French Country Corner Hutch Cupboard Golden HoneyAntique C1899 French Art Nouveau Bronze Desk Mirror Frame & Porcelain Clock YqzSuperb French Antique Boudoir Mirror....late 1800s...painted Glass.Antique Boudoir Bed Doll, French Gerling, (all Original) Silk Face,cloth, CompoSweet! Vintage French Five (5) Jewel Desk Clock W/ Music Box Alarm F/ Repair Nr!Rare Antique French 19th C Champleve & Bronze Figural Mantle / Table /desk ClockAntique 19th C French Revival George Xiv Gilt Dore & Enamel Inkwell Desk Set YqzVintage French 1950's Jielde 3 Arm Industrial Light Desk Wall Lamp Lampe BauhausAntique Desk Clock Antique Clock Bronze French Antique Clock Antique Table Clock6 Vintage French Provisional Drawer Pull Knob Brass Antique Furniture (lot #11)Antique French Ebonised Napoleon Iii Boulle Inlaid Brass Table Box Ladies Antique French Writing Desk Tiger Oak Desk Secretary Drop LidAntique French Victorian 19th Century Oil Lamp Gilt Bronze & Onyx BaseAntique/vintage Victorian French Cherub Marble Brass Heavy Table Lamp Tall 43"Vintage French Handworked Crochet Lace Bed Cover / ThrowLovely Vintage French Bed Cover Ivory Cream ColourFrench Antique Wood Statue With Griffins Or Dragons Architectural CarvedAntique 19th.century French Carved Color Ivory &silver Monogram Desk Wax Seal Antique Chinese Carved Hardwood Low Table Stand - French Flea Market FindVintage French Style Floral Painted NightstandLimoges Chantilly Boy & Girl In Bed Trinket Box Vintage France Beetle MarkVintage 1980's St. Louis Cardinals Seat Cushion 12" X 12" Kmart, ChampionsVintage Rotary Dial French Princess Style Victorian Desk Phone -peach-colorFrench Antique Renaissance Revival Panel/door In Walnut WoodAntique French Tapestry Furniture Upholstery 19th Century Furniture SetVintage French Boudoir Porcelain Floral Roses Gold Gilt Table LampAntique French Victorian 19th Century Oil Lamp Glass Font Neo-classical ColumnVtg French Provincial Figurine Table Lamp With Lace Shade, Brass Bass - BergerVintage Metal Tole Ivory & Gold Table Lamp - French CountryVintage French Provincial Accent TableVintage Bespaq Pair Of Small Tables Mahogany Antique French Style Walnut ParlorEthan Allen Country French Carved Trifold Dresser Chest Wall MirrorFrench Antique Renaissance Revival Panel/door In Walnut Wood 1French Antique Renaissance Revival Panel/door In Walnut Wood 2Vintage Lamp Cast Iron Bird Table Lamp Paris French Country Cottage Shabby RetroEthan Allen Country French Legacy Dresser Handles Hardware Pulls BEthan Allen Country French Legacy Dresser Handles Hardware Pulls C1932 French Art Deco Furniture Catalog

Recent News: French Style Furniture

Source: Google News

Picture Perfect: George Dunbar frames his art in a modernist gem near Slidell, September 3rd

Those efforts paid off: It's easy to see every object in Dunbar's house, an eclectic collection that includes art pottery from 1950s New Orleans, a bold abstraction by Franz Kline, French furniture that came down from his family, and a leather and...Read more

Everything I Needed to Know About Negotiating I Learned Watching My Dad Make a ...
Entrepreneur, August 31st

One of the pieces was a “gorgeous” wall unit from the fine French furniture company “The House of Tackee.” It was a late 1960s or early 1970s piece, complete with “luxurious” orange drapery behind wrought iron and wood, smoked mirror accents, a built...Read more

Destination decor: your ticket to style
Derby Telegraph, August 30th

"Curves, carvings, swirls, floral swags, cherubs – French furniture is the manifestation of pure Gallic romance and conjures all the va-va-voom and romance we associate with the style," says Georgia Metcalfe, creative director and founder of The French ...Read more

Décadrages' BedUp lifts up to the ceiling when not in use
Dezeen, August 30th

Instead of folding against a wall, this space-saving bed by French furniture manufacture Décadrages can be hoisted up to the ceiling to create more room in studio apartments. BedUp's beech bed-frame can be raised up to the ceiling with the mattress and ...Read more

Fine Art Auctions. A French Affair. Works of Art at Roseberys London
Yareah Magazine, August 29th

William Redford was one of London's leading 20th century continental furniture dealers, specialising in French furniture and Objets d'Art. Based at 9 Mount Street, Mayfair, London, Redford was known internationally for his integrity as a dealer, and...Read more

Get a 20% off introductory offer at Bonappart, Plus win £250 to spend at ...
Grazia, August 26th

Whatever your budget Bonappart can offer you style-led French furniture with products ranging from £10 - £5,000. And for a limited time only Bonappart are offering you an exclusive 20% off introductory offer between Thursday 27th and Sunday 13th ...Read more

French works of art offered for sale at Roseberys London
PanARMENIAN.Net, August 23rd

William Redford was one of London's leading 20th century continental furniture dealers, specialising in French furniture and Objets d'Art. Based at 9 Mount Street, Mayfair, London, Redford was known internationally for his integrity as a dealer, and...Read more

The Best New Stands at the Paul Bert Serpette Antiques Market in Paris
New York Times, August 17th

In Paris's Saint-Ouen neighborhood just north of the city, the old is becoming new again: The Paul Bert Serpette antiques market inside the famed 129-year-old Les Puces flea market is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to a group of young dealers opening...Read more