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.
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