In the 17th century, French intellectuals developed a fondness for salons—gatherings to discuss to art, literature, and politics—so naturally French furniture designers were asked to devise new, more comfortable ways to sit. By the 1800s, a typical French salon suite held a sofa, a chaise longue, a lady's armchair, a gentleman's armchair, and a stool. Today, most collectible antique French chairs come from such Victorian Era conversation rooms.
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. Inspired by the reigns of kings Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI, antique French chairs usually feature carved wooden frames that were gilded or painted, as well as fine silk upholstery embroidered with delicate flowers. These chairs often incorporate serpentine lines; molding carved in the shapes of scrolls, faces, and arched crests; legs that curve or taper; and feet that scroll or end in claws or hooves.
One of the most common styles is the "fauteil," an upholstered armchair with open sides that came into popularity under the reign of Louis XIV, the 17th-century "Sun King." The chair is still a mainstay of French furnishing. Eventually, upholstered pads were added to the top of the fauteil armrests for even greater comfort. 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, shaped like an animal's hind 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.
Revivalist Louis XV-style fauteils and bergéres can be distinguished from Louis XVI-style models. Louis XV-style chairs are curvier and rounder with cabriole legs and fanciful embellishments. By the time of Louis XVI's reign, Neoclassicism was all the rage, and so the more florid Rococo tendencies were toned down with Classical symmetry. Louis XVI-style chairs have more rectangular frames, with tapered legs. Oftentimes, these Victorian reproductions have casters attached to their feet.
In the 19th century, French armchairs grew even more luxurious when coiled springs were mass-produced. These "tapissier" chairs were also upholstered in elaborately detailed tapestries. The Victorians, very concerned about what happens when young lovers sat on a sofa, invented a whole host of seats including "canapé borne," "dos-à-dos," and "boudeuse," that let sitters have conversations, modestly, without the risk of physical contact.
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