A HISTORY OF FRENCH FURNITURE
Think of afternoons in the vineyards of Bordeaux, a leisurely stroll on the French Riviera, or a cafe' au lait in a Parisian cafe. No one lives as well as the French. Art, romance, fine food, and wines, the French know how to make life beautiful and comfortable. Their sensibility emanates from their homes where they enjoy furnishings and decorative arts that span centuries of great style. From Medieval times to the present, there is much to know about how to identify the distinctive look of each period. We've made it easy with this Timeline guide. Take a look through the various eras in French furniture history so that you can know more about the styles you enjoy most.
Also known as the Romanesque and Gothic periods, this era was marked by political instability. Feudal lords reigned over the populous but they did little to affect the high crime rates. Life was pretty grim for most people. Homes were cold and damp and animals shared the living quarters with the family.
The furniture of the time reflected the needs of the people. To combat the cold, families hung heavy tapestries on their walls. Much of the furniture was large and simple, like benches, chests and stools. They were made of heavy French oak to discouraged thieves. Deep hand carving was also common, a reflection of the architecture seen in the cathedrals and churches.
The Renaissance began when a treasure trove of Greek and Roman antiquities were unearthed, sparking an interest in the classicism of the past. In response, French craftsman created furniture with deeply carved ornate designs that reflected the Roman sensibility. The buffets and cabinets of the time actually resemble small buildings with their architectural columns, balustrades, windows and panels, reminiscent of the Roman and Greek temples and coliseums.
When Henry IV was assassinated in 1610, his successor, Louis XIII, was too young to rule. Marie de Medici and later, the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin ruled in his place as regents. During this period, the middle class became much wealthier. As a result the growing demand for furniture lured many Italian craftsman to France.
The emerging middle class also meant a new class of people who wanted beautiful furniture but who did not live in Paris. The French country furniture era began. These rustic pieces reflected the styles popular in the city but were made for a more relaxed country life. The trestle table, with its thick plateau tabletop and graceful trestle legs, is an example of this inviting style.
But perhaps the best known innovation from this period is the Os de Mouton chair. As the French name suggests, the shape of the chair legs is literally based on the legs of a lamb. The chair also marks the introduction of upholstered backs and seats with the popular flame stitch pattern and nail head trim.
Without question Louis XIV, also known as the sun king, is the most celebrated king of France. The chateau he built, the palace of Versailles, is a testament to his legacy as a lover of the arts. During his reign the government had departments for architecture, painting, the gardens and of course, cabinet making.
The Louis XIV style is the epitome of luxury and opulence. The furniture of this era is characterized by intricate marquetry, heavy carving and gold leaf decorations of scalloped shells, lions and of course, the sun and its rays.
This period takes its name from another era of regency rule when Louis XV was too young to take the throne and Phillipe D'Orleans governed in his stead. During this short time, French craftsman loosened their strict adherence to the classical forms the tyrannical Louis XIV adored and look elsewhere for inspiration.
Regence style was inspired by mythological themes and by the Orient. Flowers, shells and dragons were predominant decorations. Shapes became more bowed and round like the distinctive "bombe" chest. Chairs were also narrower with deeper seats. Caning was also introduced and marble accents were used throughout. Pretty and romantic, this style of French furniture became enormously popular in Europe very quickly. Even today, the style endures. Regence furniture is a favorite of antique lovers and collectors.
Louis XV may have been a reluctant king, but his reign marked a time of peace and prosperity. At the time, the Siecle des Lumieres (the Enlightenment) was in full swing with the king Louis XV as its greatest supporter. Women became much more powerful during this period with the dawn of their successful intellectual salons. As a result, their influence was felt in the court. Feminine forms became much more popular, like the roll-top desk which was found in Louis XV's room at Versailles. Pieces with hidden compartments and secret drawers also became popular. And nature motifs were an important part of the decorations and carvings.
With Louis XV furniture, the asymmetry and heavy ornamentation of the Regence period was made even more lavish through the use of extravagant wood veneers and marquetry. All kinds of lacquers and hand painting were also important, especially Oriental lacquers and anything done by the innovators in the field, the Martin brothers.
In 1748, the discovery of the ancient city of Pompeii caused a resurgence of the popularity of Greco-Roman antiquities. At the same time, nature motifs were carried over from the Louis XV period. The resulting style is known as neo-classicism.
In the Louis XVI style, intricate marquetry and floral designs were banded by geometrical trims and circumscribed by oval or round medallions. Sculptures of animals such as the eagle, the dolphin or a ram's head were also common. But the feminine proportions were still going strong, as evidence by the new dainty writing desks with ornately carved legs. This was also the first time when chairs were created for strictly ornamental reasons. The seats were trapezoidal and the backs were designed with lyre, vases and flowers.
In 1789, the Revolution ripped France apart. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were imprisoned and killed. Napoleon eventually seized power but not before several governing groups fought for power. This era's name, Directoire, refers to one of those elected groups.
Directoire style reflected the transition away from the flamboyant monarchy. Themes of antiquity and nature were still evident but much more subdued. Marquetry was abandoned in favor of more austere decorations. Geometric patterns were prevalent but less extravagant than before, often integrating a Grecian urn into the designs. The caryatid form was also used. And for the first time, Egyptian motifs emerged. Furniture sometimes included carvings of sphinxes in the bronze hardware detailing.
In 1804 Napoleon I crowned himself Emperor of France, ending years of political instability and dawning the Empire period. During this time, the economy was booming and a new aristocracy was forming, with Napoleon's court as its cornerstone.
Napoleon's new haute bourgeois court was known for competing with other European courts, trying to out-do each other's extravagance. This sense of competition is seen in the furniture of the time. Silhouettes became grander and more substantial with a more defined structure. Gone were the delicate carvings and round romantic shapes. Bold and formal, Empire style was defined by architectural elements like columns, pilasters and bronze work. The pieces were commonly made from heavy woods such as mahogany and ebony with dark finishes. Marble tops were popular as were Egyptian motifs. Continuing the tradition of Directoire style, artisans used sphinxes, griffins, urns and eagles to decorate their work. They also used Napoleonic symbols, the bee and a large "N."
Restoration and Charles X
1814 - 1830
Napoleon's love of empire and conquest eventually led to his downfall. In 1814, the French, depressed over their military losses decided to restore the monarchy. The wealthy noble class, many of whom had left after the French Revolution, returned and reinstated King Charles X. They also tried to recapture the beauty and comforts of their former lives.
In terms of furniture and decoration, this meant the creation of a softer version of the Empire style. Craftsman continued to use the strong geometry of the period but they added a touch of whimsy and fantasy. Musical instruments were carved into the legs of small tables and desks. Woods were lighter in both color and density. And the art of marquetry returned with decorative flowers, garlands and rosettes, and detailing that highlighted the architecture and geometry of the pieces.
In 1830, the French people lost their patience with Charles X and over three days of horrible fighting, known as Trois Glorieuses, they overthrew his government. Louis-Phillipe, the Duke of Orleans became the new leader of France. He managed the royalists to his political right, and the radicals on the left but he sympathized with the bourgeois class, who favored him as well.
Up to this point, furniture was sold piece by piece. As craftsman began embracing the burgeoning industrial revolution, production increased and they began making furniture sets for the bedroom and dining rooms. The handcrafted furniture style combined the best of past designs from the Gothic, Renaissance, Louis XIII and Louis XV periods. Lines were simpler and more somber. Mahogany and rosewoods were most common and marble tops were also used. Overall the furniture was very functional, which made it popular with the bourgeois class.
"Country French" furniture doesn't refer to a period in French history but to a way of life. Drawing from many periods in French furniture design, particularly Louis XV, Louis XVI, Regence, Directoire and Louis Phillipe, country French furniture exemplifies relaxed sophisticated living. These designs are found in the country homes of France in Normandy, Provence and Bordeaux. You'll find large, handcrafted furniture farm tables with ladderback chairs, carved oak hutches, sideboards, and armoires all in various finishes.
Most of all, country French is a feeling. There are no right or wrong rules, as long as the mood exudes comfort and warmth. Country French is so well loved, its never goes out of style. Its furnishings endure today and will continue to charm for years to come.