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.
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.
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.
Nineteenth-century French revivalist furniture draws on 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.
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. These Baroque designs also incorporated Renaissance images like mythological creatures, as well as arabesques, grotesques, flowers, and wild animals.
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. The "fauteuil," an armchair with open sides, and the "canapé," or early couch, grew in popularity as commodes and bureaus replace armoires for storage and display.
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 "...
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 extravagant scene incorporating waterfalls, rocks, shells, and icicles. This posh, frou-frou style was named after rockwork, "rocaille" in French, and "rococo" in Italian, and it flew in the face of Classical rules of symmetry. Rococo, also known as "style moderne," was all about fantasy, unabashedly flaunting frilly flowers, arabesques, C- and S-scrolls, cupids, scallop shells, chubby Cupids, and Chinese-inspired figures.
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. The new cabriole legs freed chairs and tables from stretcher support. The chairs had visible wooden frames with arched crest rails, as arms were shortened and shaped backs lowered to accommodate women's hoop skirts and huge coiffures. 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.
Since upholstery was becoming more widely available, craftsmen invented an even more comfortable chair, called the "bergére," with upholstered panels between the arm and seat. The chairs and sofas, covered in the most exquisite woven silks in pale pastels, echoed the patterns and colors of a room's wall panels. 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.
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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Furniture ads banned by watchdogs for French claimProlific North, January 28th
A Middlesbrough company which advertised 'Antique French' furniture which was neither antique, nor made in France has been banned from making the claims. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received a complaint about the website for a number ...Read more
When the worlds of design convergeSouth China Morning Post (subscription), January 27th
"I'm not an expert in Chinese furniture, but even I could see the similarities between what I was looking at and the French furniture that I deal in," said Kraemer. "I thought it was fascinating." So Kraemer, a fifth-generation scion of the Paris-based...Read more
The Look of LacquerWall Street Journal, January 22nd
Before World War I, when French furniture was still handmade, Paris's main lacquer workshops might have had more than 100 craftsmen, says Ms. Midavaine, who has never had more than 10 working for her. Tradition plays a big role at the workshop...Read more
Why Roche Bobois Brought Uber-Fancy Euro Furniture Back to PortlandPortland Monthly, January 20th
In 2005, Roche Bobois—a French furniture brand known for luscious color schemes, collaborations with the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier, and high-end niche appeal—opened a Portland store. Demand proved low, and the store vanished quietly. Last fall ...Read more
Wedding bells silenced as pope's Philly visit fills hotelsThe State, January 18th
"I had a moment of pure panic, about 20 minutes of hysterical crying when I was yelling at Joe for no apparent reason," said Suresch, 35, gallery manager for French furniture company Roche Bobois. "He was like a deer in headlights." Said Felicetti, 41...Read more
Auction, sale to feature items from Robert Gottfried estatePalm Beach Daily News, January 8th
The auction also will include items consigned by other owners. Those include a collection of fine 18th- and 19th-century Italian and French furniture and accessories being sold by J. Abbott, who has a home on Ibis Isle, according to the auction house...Read more
Treasure: A look ahead at what will be in for 2015The Detroit News, January 1st
Bleached beauties: While shabby chic and whitewashed may continue to be popular in certain circles, Frankel sees a move toward painted and bleached French furniture among her clients. “When you bleach carved pieces it really brings out the carving and ...Read more
Masterpieces of 18th-century French furniture showing at VersaillesReuters, November 5th
PARIS, November 5 (Reuters) - The "Desk of the King" took nine years of work for the cabinetmakers of Louis XV, its rich inlays, secret drawers and innovative design making it one of the many masterpieces of 18th century French furniture. Now, this and...Read more