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    

Vintage Pierre Deux Table Lamp French Country 3 Way No Shade NrExquisite Antique French Net Tambour Chain Stitched Embroidery Bed CoverletFrench Art Deco Red Celluloid Lift Arm Antique Brass Table Lighter 1930sLarge Antique 19thc French Figural 8day Mantle / Table Clock After Arthur WaagenAntique 1880s Signed French Bisque Bust/table Lamp After A. Carrier Belleuse YqzAntique French Soldier Spelta Go To Bed Match Candle Holder Original PaintWow! Large Antique French Bronze And Pink Marble Oil Lamp, Two Tones Font L@@k Vintage Shabby White Wall Shelf Bed Crown French Country French Cottage Chic2 Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique 7.5" Table Spoons 101g #22 Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique 7.5" Table Spoons 100g #1(7) Vintage Matching French Provential Furniture Drawer Pull Handle W Back ScrewLouis Xv Presidential Executive Desk - Custom Designed In Italy Antique Victorian French Sewing Pin Cushion Thimble Box Chair Table ClampAntique French Penny Toy Doll BedVintage French Mid Century Workshop Lamp Industrial Desk , Table Lamp Green 40sFrench Vintage Light Shade,blue Frilly Glass, Antique, Art Deco CollectableAntique Vintage Brass Bronze Ornate Piano Desk Lamp French ?French Drago Vintage Leather 10" Ruler Gold Tone Lift Arm Table Lighter16" Antique Altar Table Standing Pedestal Metal Crucifix Cross FranceVintage Table Lighter Mother Of Pearl Made In France 3 3/4 Tall19th Century French Prie Dieu, Antique Kneeler, Collectible Prayer Chair Gothic Tufted Solid Carved Wood Ivory Creme & Gold French Provincial Couch & Chair SetVintage French Copper Large Roasting Pan Baking Dish Oven Table Dish Tin LinedVintage Carved French Provincial SofaVintage C1920 French 8 Day Leather Travelling Desk Clock VgcBeautiful French Provincial Sofa With CarvingsExquisite Antique French Net Tambour Bed Coverlet Bedspread Mint!7' X 3' French Farmhouse Cherry Dining TableVtg Irish Linen Lot Damask Madeira Handkerchiefs Table Runners Souvenir FranceVintage French Jaz Discreto Table Top Alarm Clock Black Metal Case 1950 Wind UpVintage Old French Provincial Square Base Table Lamp Brass Socket W/ Harp WorksVintage Original 8x10 Photo Louis Jordan Estate Martha 1960s Lawn Chairs Yellow

Recent News: French Style Furniture

Source: Google News

A Space&Saving Bed That Lowers From The Ceiling
Co.Design, July 31st

With more people than ever living alone and in smaller spaces, the demand is high for furniture that frees up space while still performing its primary function. Designed by French furniture company Décadrages, the BedUp not only saves space, it looks...Read more

The Passion Project: an extreme Rosedale reno inspired by an out-of-control ...
Toronto Life (blog), July 31st

great-spaces-the-passion-project-rosedale-reno-art- Cheryl Atkinson and Don Schmitt were running out of wall space; they'd been collecting artwork for years, and their Trinity Bellwoods semi was starting to look more like a storeroom than a sanctuary...Read more

'We saw the future in Griffintown', businesses say
Montreal Gazette, July 28th

Also along Peel St., there's an emerging home design district, with such shops as Celadon, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Item and West Elm. Maison Corbeil is also moving in, partnering with French furniture brand Ligne Roset. Laroche and Soucie had...Read more

AD's Aesthete Discovers a Perfect Multi-Season Room
Architectural Digest (blog), July 28th

Wolfe (1858–1950), a mediocre but marvelously dressed American stage actress who transformed herself into a great international decorator known for popularizing flowered chintz, mirrored surfaces, 18th-century French furniture, and textiles that...Read more

YSL Bringing Back Couture
WWD, July 28th

To introduce the new project, Slimane shot a black-and-white campaign called “Rue de L'Université,” featuring models dancing, posing and arm-wrestling in the new salons, which are decorated with modernist, Art Deco and 18th-century French furniture ...Read more

Three for Silver's broad take on steampunk acoustic music
The Missoulian, July 23rd

Sertain's accordion and Allison's violin are a key part of the interplay, which veers right into classical territory with an arrangement of French "furniture music" composer Erik Satie's "Gnossienne No. 1." A few tracks later, though, they're back to...Read more

Eyes on brown furniture from Annandale's The Abbey
The Australian Financial Review, July 22nd

While most of these lots are low value decorative items like porcelain, there are also pieces of painted French furniture, including a 19th century side cabinet estimated at $1,000 to $2,000, and a number of mirrors, including a neoclassical gilt...Read more

Retail news: French furniture showroom shifts to SoCo; Teuscher closes at ...
OCRegister, May 21st

Roche Bobois is a high-end French furniture store that was founded in Paris in 1950. SoCo developer Scott Burnham said the mall is a great addition to SoCo that will “reinforce the caliber of the consumer that shops at SoCo.” The store frequently...Read more