The History of French Furniture
Older French properties are the perfect backdrop for furniture with loads of character, from fine antiques to more rustic pieces. Here we look at the history of French furniture from heavy medieval dowry coffers to intricate Louis XV marquetry to Art Deco.
The Middle Ages
In medieval times France was ruled by feudal lords and most ordinary people had pretty grim lives. The lived, ate and slept together in one large room, which was often cold and damp, and shared with their animals.
What furniture there was had to be practical: large simple benches, stools and chests, made of heavy oak to discourage thieves. Cloth or tapestries insulated cold walls and there was always a hearth fire; light was provided by torches or primitive lamps. There may have been a recess or bower containing a bed and chest.
Lords’ castles didn’t fare much better, just great hall trestle tables and rough benches. These contrasted with the seigneurial chair, which sometimes had a gilded canopy.
The chest (also called a bahut, coffre or huche) was very important, as it was used to contain valuables, whether linen, jewels, arms, grain or salt. Designed to be moved from place to place, they were used as a seat by day, bed by night (with cushions) and as tables.
Early furniture followed the lines of architecture. Few pieces were carved, just those crafted to show off wealth or for special occasions, such as for a dowry. Carving reflected that of churches and cathedrals.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages decoration featured more on chests and chairs. Architecture was going through the Gothic stage and furniture reflected this. Carving became heavier and more complex, featuring animals and grotesque heads. Beds were enclosed (lit clos), often with carved or latticed walls. The cupboard was introduced, also often decorated.
Gothic architecture was at its best in the 13th and 14th centuries, turning to Flamboyant Gothic in the 15th century. The transition between Gothic and Renaissance occurred in this latter period.
The Renaissance brought a whole new attitude to the arts. Renaissance actually means "revival", and refers more to a spirit of individuality than a particular style. It started in Italy, reaching its height in the 15th century. After the French seized Milan under Louis XII and saw the city’s magnificent court, they took home Italian ideas and craftsmen.
The French Renaissance came into its own in 1515, when Frances I took the throne. A patron of the arts, he invited Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo da Vinci to France. By the early 16th century French designers were producing important work and in 1550 Jacques Androuet Ducerceau published a series of influential furniture designs.
Gothic art was firmly rooted in France, so the Renaissance style took a while to filter through. Gothic and Renaissance designs were often placed side by side, in panels and furniture.
French ornamental woodwork tended to be lighter and more delicate than the Italian style, with more floral forms. After various Greek and Roman antiquities were unearthed, interest was sparked in the classicism of the past. French craftsmen created furniture with deeply carved ornate designs. They copied the symmetrical appearance of classic architecture – buffets and cabinets resembled small buildings with columns, balustrades, windows and panels, reminiscent of Roman and Greek temples and colosseums. Furniture often featured ornamentation inspired by Michelangelo and Raphael, or depicted mythological or biblical themes.
In general furniture was becoming lighter and new items were introduced. Tables took on finer lines and perhaps carving, cabinets and chests of drawers replaced chests and cupboards, and clocks, mirrors and screens became more commonplace.
Renaissance palaces were really luxurious, with carved or gilded woodwork panels and ornate tapestries and paintings.
The time and effort spent by medieval craftsmen on chests was now transferred to the cabinets of the Renaissance – these offered more scope for artistic work than beds, chairs or tables.
Oak was mainly used, but woods such as walnut were also introduced. Although plentiful in France walnut is not easily carved, so panelling and marquetry featured.
The Renaissance reached its height during the reign of Henri II – the Henri II era lasted about 75 years. Furniture was large and solid, square or rectangular. Pieces were well carved or sculpted, sometimes with barley, twisted or fluted columns. Chair legs were straight, often turned, and sometimes cushions were tied on to seats. Cabinets had an architectural style. Henri’s marriage to Catherine de Medici continued the Italian influence.
By Henri IV’s reign, however, furniture decoration had become rather superfluous.
When Henri IV was assassinated in 1610, his successor Louis XIII was too young to rule so Marie de Medici and later Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin became Regents. Marie de Medici invited Rubens to Paris bringing a Flemish influence, but he had studied in Italy and there were still many Italian craftsmen in France, so the Italian influence continued.
Louis XIII furniture featured massive, solid construction with geometric carving. Furniture design was more opulent than during the Renaissance.
Cherubs, scrolls, fruit, flowers and foliage were common decorative themes. Lathe-turning and moulding techniques also influenced appearance.
The emerging middle class fuelled the demand for furniture. For the first time people expected furniture to be comfortable as well as beautiful, and fixed upholstery was one of the great inventions of this period. Leather, tapestries and fine fabrics were nailed directly to the chair’s wooden framework; seats and backs were padded.
The principal pieces of furniture included tall cupboards, full dressers, cabinets and buffets with carved doors and mouldings. Ebony was a commonly used carving material.
The Os de Mouton chair is the most notable example of the era, with legs shaped like those of a lamb. The lit-de-repose or chaise longue was also introduced, a "chair" about six feet long, with or without arms, with a mattress and bolster. Beds were very important as ladies often held receptions in their bedrooms – the king and queen gave audiences to their subjects while in bed. Beds had canopies and curtains, and were covered with tapestries, silk, satin, velvet, embroidery and lace.
Cabinets and presses were large, sometimes divided into two. Tables were carved and gilded, often ornamented with bronze and copper. The cartouche was much used (a kind of nameplate consisting of hieroglyphic symbols enclosed in a loop). When rectangles were used, they were always broader than they were high. Carved and gilded mirrors were introduced by the Italians, as were sconces and chandeliers. It was the time of great opulence.
Many middle class people wanted nice furniture but didn’t live in Paris, hence the French country look began. Rustic pieces reflected city styles, but were made for a more relaxed rural life, such as the trestle table with thick plateau top and graceful legs.
Louis XIV – the Sun King – ruled from 1643 to 1715, the longest reign of any European monarch. Also known as ‘Le Grand Monarque’, he proposed absolute monarchy and declared himself the Church and the State. His ideal was splendour, and he imposed his will and taste on France, encouraging great men of the intellectual and arts worlds. The Palace of Versailles is a testament to his love of the arts and luxury. The aristocracy mirrored the king’s excesses. The Louis XIV style is also called baroque.
Louis and his government set up the ‘Manufacture des meubles de la Couronne’, known as ‘Manufacture des Gobelins’. Artists of all kinds were given apartments in the Louvre, with departments dedicated to decorative arts such as architecture, cabinet making, tapestry, painting, jewellery and gardens, to furnish the royal palaces. The king’s maître ébéniste (chief cabinetmaker), André Charles Boulle, developed marquetry juxtaposing veneers of ebony, brass, tortoiseshell, ivory, pewter and mother of pearl, a technique to which he gave his name. His beautiful cabinets, commodes, tables and clocks are not almost priceless. The majority of Boulle work that has survived was actually made in Victorian times or later.
Charles Lebrun is another notable furniture designer of the time.
New designs included the bureau plat (writing table) and finely ornamented commode (chest of drawers) which became one of the most important furniture types of the 18th century. The mid-17th century also saw the introduction of the ‘cabinet-on-stand’ throughout Europe.
Louis’s palaces provided a social setting suited to the extravagant lifestyle of the nobility. The finest materials were used and furniture is characterised by intricate marquetry, elaborate carving, gilding, inlaying, lacquer, gold leaf decorations of scalloped shells, lions’ heads, dolphins, laurels and, of course, the sun and its rays. Tapestries were equally elaborate. Chairs and settees were richly coloured and upholstered.
French court furniture was built for grandeur rather than comfort. Only the king was allowed to sit in a fauteuil (armchair) so stools and benches covered in velvet, damask, gold brocade and embroidered silk were common.
All aspects of a room were designed to complement each other. Gobelin tapestries made in Paris and carpets from Aubusson and Beauvais added splendour. Ceilings and walls were adorned with frescoes or carved and gilded woodwork and panelling called boiseries. Everything had to be beautiful, right down to the window-locks and doorknobs.
After the Trianon de Porcelaine at Versailles was built for one of Louis XIV’s mistresses, there was an increasing fascination with the Far East. Demand for all things Asian – from silk screens to lacquered cabinets – soon outstripped supply, so French craftsmen copied these pieces adding flourishes of their own. This created the foundation for the style known as chinoiserie.
Women were becoming more important and a definite femine influence can bee seen in the Louis XIV furniture style, although this only reached full expression in the later reign of Louis XV.
The Louise XIV era was the foundation of the styles that flowed. Indeed, many people look on the periods of Louis XIV, the Regency, Louise XV and Louis XVI as one great period with variations.
When Louis XIV died in 1715, his five year old great-grandson, whose parents and brother had passed away, became Louise XV. As he was too young to take the throne, his uncle Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was appointed Regent until the king attained legal majority in 1723. The transitional period between the opulent baroque period and less formal rococo era of Louis XV became known as French Regence (or Regency).
Offended by the pageantry of Versailles, the duke moved the royal court to Paris where courtiers lived in less extraveant hotel particuliers or private residences. He employed architect and decorator Gilles Marie Oppenord and cabinetmaker Charles Cressent on the interiors of the Palais Royal, his Paris residence. They created the Regence style.
Intimate petit salons introduced an era of lighter, more graceful furniture. Craftsmen moved away from the rigid classical styling imposed on them by Louis XIV. Asymmetrical curved lines replaced symmetrical straight lines. Where they retained their symmetry they became more fluid. Plain wood veneer replaced boulle marquetry. Inspiration was taken from mythological themes and the Orient, flowers, shells and dragons.
The cabriole leg made its debut in sofas and chairs of the period, as well as on armoires, bookcases and writing desks. Chairs were narrower with deeper seats, and cane was introduced. Master cabinetmakers developed the commode, and with its curved chest and plump sides, the ‘bombe’, or convex commode, appeared. Foliage and delicate bouquets wrapped with ribbons and bows adorned the upper sections of armoires. Beautiful wall panelling with curved corners also became a hallmark of the Regence era.
The Regence pointed the way for the gentler rococo period (1730 to 1760) when Louis XV and his official mistress (maitresse en titre) Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour, influenced the decorative arts.
Furniture was becoming more ornately decorated and daintier, more feminine and graceful. Rosewood and fruit woods replaced darker woods. Whereas the baroque style favoured symmetry, rococo embraced the asymmetry born in the Regence era.
Extravagant wood veneers and marquetry featured, along with carved metal ornament and gilt bronze. Wood was often painted, enamelled, gilded and carved. Lacquers were important, especially oriental lacquers and anything done by the Martin brothers.
The rococo style featured love, humour, music and nature-inspired motifs and themes, including shells, rocks, fish, waves, birds, foliage, vines, flowers, seaweed, rocks and serpents, plus farming motifs like corn and wheat. Ribbons with streamers and hearts were also fashionable. This showy look worked well in the grand rooms for which it was designed.
Regarded by many as the Golden Age of French furniture Louis XV’s reign was a time of peace and prosperity. The Siecle des Lumieres (Age of Enlightenment) embraced intellectual salons and debate. Women became more powerful and their influence was felt in court and in furniture design.
Although public reception rooms were still grand, family apartments were less formal and strong colours were replaced with the pastels favoured by Madame de Pompadour. Furniture was comfortable as well as stylish.
Louis XV sought inviting chairs and furniture arrangements suited to conversation. The King’s menuisier (chairmaker), Jean-Baptiste Tilliard, made a low, curved armchair with an exposed wood frame, far lighter and less regal looking than earlier chairs. A basket of flowers was carved on the seat rail, and shells and scrolls on the back, showing the chair was meant to be moved about for impromptu use (rather than to be pushed up against the wall).
Parisian chairmakers adopted Tilliards bergere chair designs. Frames were sometimes gilded or painted. Upholstered arms were moved back from the length of the seat to avoid crushing fashionable crinolines. Rich damasks and velvets were favoured for upholstery, along with Gobelin, Aubusson and Beauvais tapestry. Cane chairs with loose seat cushions were popular too.
By the second quarter of the century, Parisian homes had crystal chandeliers, and marble mantels with large mirror panels or painted overmantels called trumeaus. Wood floors were arranged in marquetry or parquet patterns, then laid with Aubusson or Savonnerie rugs.New pieces to emerge during this period included the fauteuil (armchair), bergere (easy chair), secretaire-a-abattant (fall-front writing desk), table-a-ecrire (writing table), and bureau-a-cylindre (cylinder-top desk).
Noted furniture designers included Charles Cressent, Bernard Vanrisamburgh, Jean-Baptiste Tilliard and Nicolas Heurtaut.
Towards the end of the Louis XV period, furniture became perhaps too decadently rococo, with curves everywhere, no symmetry and lavish decoration.
CENTURY BY CENTURY
10th – 15th Centuries
During the Middle Ages furniture was functional and practical, confined to a few pieces such as table, benches, stools and beds. Carving showed wealth or was used for dowry pieces. This period covers the Romanesque and Gothic eras.
Although Gothic styles continued into the 16th century, the influence of the Italian Renaissance was soon felt in France. Furniture became less heavy, more comfortable and more decorated. Renaissance palaces were particularly ornamental.
A time of exploration and discovery, as well as religious and political unrest. New wealth changed the style and manner of living. During the first part of the century furniture design was dominated by the elegance of the Renaissance, but gradually changed to the baroque, a massive ornate style originating in Italy. Barque reached its height in France under Louise XIV. For the first time people expected furniture to be comfortable, as well as beautiful.
The golden age of cabinetmaking, reflecting the elaborate social customs of the day. Industrial development, international trade and the migration of craftsmen created prosperity and an exchange of idea. Furniture was influenced by the Orient. Foreign material, especially mahogany, played an important role in the first half of the century, while the discovery of Pompeii and the use of satinwood influenced design in the second half. New pieces and designs appeared. Styles were set in France, migrated to England and then America. There was a particular liking for small tables and cabinets, commodes, and large writing tables. Furniture styles changed from the massive ornate baroque of Louise XIV to the delicate decorated rococo of Louis XV, then to the neo-classicism of Louis XVI and Directoire.
A time of decorative conflict. A wave of classicism was inspired by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii and social unrest at the end of the 18th century. Expression as found in the Louis XV, Directoire and Empire styles. While cabinetmakers exploited new industrialised techniques, they maintained a fascination with the past. Design elements were borrowed from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. A renewed interest in the Middle Ages led to Gothic details. Renaissance forms were also admired, and cabinetmakers made enormous walnut buffets. 18th century styles were also thrown into the pot – it was an eclectic mix.
Modern materials and technology changed traditional construction methods, with the emphasis on the functional. Wood was still the most popular material, but glass, metal and plastics were also used. Beauty was provided by structure and materials, rather than surface ornamentation. Furniture was scaled to modern houses and apartments. An interest in traditional styles led to antique collecting and also ‘antiquing’ and reproduction pieces.
Rococo began to be considered frivolous and a classical revival was inspired by the discovery of Pompeii in 1748 – the resulting style became known as neo-classicism or the classical revival. Designers also looked back to the more architectural furniture of the Louis XIV period.
This period marked the return of straight lines, symmetry, leaf or bead mouldings, and classical ornamentation. Simple construction and design characterise Louise XVI furniture. Straight lines replaced flowing scrolls, horizontal bands took the place of ornate mouldings, and rectangular spaces with classic emblems replaced cupid and rose-garlanded panels.
Natural world motifs survived, but they existed alongside more geometric shapes. Intricate marquetry and floral designs were banded by geometrical trims and surrounded by oval or round medallions.
Motifs included rosettes, garlands, festoons, urns, lyre, oak, laurel and bay leaves, as well as the eagle, dolphin and ram’s head.
Mahogany was imported and used for fine furniture. Gilding, inlay and enamel were still used, but an increasing taste or luxury led to new decorative finishes. The fanciest pieces were japanned or incorporated panels of Japanese or Chinese lacquer, while others were mounted with decorative panels from the royal porcelain factory at Sevres.
Corners of tables and cabinets were square instead of rounded, legs were straight, tapered and fluted rather than cabriole. Seat frames with ribbon twist mouldings were introduced. Commodes and bookcases took on more angular forms.
During this period marchands-merciers came to the fore. This elite group of dealers supplied furniture and decorative objects to the rich, exerting considerable influence on their design. Members included Lazare Duvaux, Dominuqe Daquerre and Jean-Henri Oeben.
There was increasing informality in domestic life and feminine proportions were still popular. Writing desks wre important, including ladies’ desks (bureaux-en-pente), and the secretaire-a-abattant came into its own against the backdrop of neo-classicism. Small portable tales (tables-a-milieu) were another innovation.
Some say this period absorbed all the good qualities and none of the bad from the Louis XV style.
This style of French furniture takes its name from one of the elected groups that held office following the French Revolution and executive of Louis XVI in 1789.
It represented a break away from the lavish royal styles of the past. Designs were more subdued and themes of antiquity and nature featured less. Marquetry was replaced by more austere decoration. Geometric patterns were less extravagant, often incorporating a Grecian urn in the design. The caryatid form was also used (a sculpted female figure used as an ornamental support). Many of the themes of the simpler late Louis XVI furniture continued.
Identifying characteristics include arabesque and Etruscan motifs such as animals, sea lions, eagles, serpents, and stylised palm leaves. Motifs were also influenced by the Revolution (wreaths, torches, and other warlike emblems).
The privations of war led to a decline in furniture quality; brass was often used for mounts instead of gilt-bronze, for example.
Commodes were plain, often with paw feet, mahogany dining tables were no longer hidden under cloth and chair legs were turned and tapered, but not fluted. Openwork chair backs with scroll-shaped rails were also coming into fashion.
Furniture designers included Jacques Louis David, a painter who designed sofas and chairs based on Greek vases, and Georges Jacob, the royal chairmaker.
In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, ending years of political instability. The Empire period dawned. The economy was booming and a new haute bourgeois aristocracy was forming.
Empire furniture is typically sombre and architectural. It is generally large, decorated with brass and ormolu and upholstered with heavy brocade or embroidered fabrics.Bold symmetrical designs replaced ornate carvings and rounded romantic shapes. Designs were often defined by architectural elements such as columns and pilasters. Mahogany, rosewood and ebony were used, and marble tops were popular.
Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign led to Egyptian motifs being used for the first time, such as sphinxes. Napoleonic symbols appeared too, especially the emperor’s monogram, the initial N, and his emblem, the bee. Empire artists were also inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman period. Decorative elements included laurel wreaths, swans, winged chimeras, griffins, urns and eagles. Motifs were often cast in bronze and applied to austere, symmetrical shapes.
Marquetry was discarded in favour of plain surfaces covered by massive carving. Faux marble, wood grain and bronze finishes were fashionable. In its plainer form the Empire style was dignified and beautiful.
Seat furniture became stiffer with rectangular backs, and front legs were either turned as balusters or were of square section. Towards the end of the era armchairs acquired scrolled arms and simple scrolled front legs.
Mahogany was popular, sometimes decorated with black and gold paint and striped fabrics. However, the naval blockade imposed by the Allies in the Napoleonic Wars later led to the adoption of native timbers such as maple. The Jacob family was the leading furniture manufacturer during this period.
The early 19th century is reckoned by many to have been the last great period in French furniture making.
Napoleon’s love of empire and conquest led to his downfall. He abdicated in 1814 following heavy military losses and defeat. The French restored the monarchy, reinstating Charles X.
The royalty and aristocracy wanted to return to their previous luxurious lifestyle. This marked a return to delicate, rounded forms, and fine decoration in furniture.
Napoleon’s downfall coincided with the Industrial Revolution, and new processes in furniture-making. At the same time the middle class was on the rise, reflecting growing prosperity and providing an increasing demand for furniture.
The massive forms and geometric styling of Empire furniture continued, but the harsh contours became softer and a whimsical touch was added. Decorative motifs included musical instruments, rosettes, garlands, swans and cornucopia. Light coloured woods (bois clair) such as maple, ash and elm were often used instead of, or with, mahogany. Dark wood inlays were set into light-coloured wood. Marquetry returned, with detailing that highlighted the architecture and geometry of the furniture.
By 1830 Charles X had fallen from favour and was overthrown during three days of fighting known as Les Trois Glorieuses. Louis Phillipe, Duke of Orleans, became France’s new leader. He managed both royalists to his right and radicals to the left, while sympathising with the bourgeois class.
Until now furniture had been sold piece by piece. The Industrial Revolution brought new production processes, and craftsmen began to make furniture sets for the bedroom and dining room.
Furniture continued the simple, rounded lines of the Restoration, but with more restrained ornamentation. The style combined the best of past designs from the Gothic, Renaissance, Louis XIII and Louis XIV periods. Furniture became more functional to suit the lifestyle of the bourgeois class. Dark woods, such as mahogany and walnut were used, and tables and commodes often had marble tops.
This refers to the period in which Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s nephew, declared himself emperor as Napoleon III. An eclectic mix of styles were inspired by the past 500 years. Often several styles were used for one piece. Furniture was characterised by more whimsical shapes and the return of painted wood and mother of pearl. Dark woods were used, also papier-mache, cast iron and ivory inlay. Chests of drawers on tall, thin legs were common. Identical reproductions of past pieces were common too. Modernisation of mechanical processes enabled more technical precision.The Revival
This period saw yet more borrowing from past styles, including Gothic, Renaissance, Regence, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. There was a move away from skilled handmade pieces to furniture created by mechanical process. Furniture was mass produced and affordable. Styles and processes from other countries were more accessible too. Leading manufacturers included Bastet, Krieger, Mercier Freres, and Somani.
From around 1890 to 1920 the Art Nouveau movement was expressed in a range of art forms from furniture, architecture and interior design to posters, glass, pottery, textiles and book illustration.
Although named after Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a Parisian shop opened in 1896 by art dealer Siegfried Bing, this style had its roots in the Arts and Crafts movement in England, which revived handmade crafts.
Flowing curved lines, plant forms, asymmetrical shapes reminiscent of the Rococo period, as well as elements of fantasy are typical. Motifs were taken from sources as varied as Japanese prints, Gothic architecture and the symbolic paintings of English poet and artist William Blake, creating a highly decorative style with fantastical elements. Tiffany lamps illustrate Art Nouveau’s ornate flowing lines.
The most common furniture was dining and bedroom pieces, with chairs displaying the widest range of the style’s application.
Art Nouveau was also used for interior design, for example at Maxim’s Restaurant in Paris. Leading designers included Emile Galle, Louis Marjorelle, Eugene Gaillard, Hector Guimard and Gustave Serrurier-Bovy.
Art Deco simplified the elaborate Nouveau style. Although the movement started round about 1910, the term Art Deco was only used in 1925 at the Paris design exhibition, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
Forms were elegant and sophisticated, characterised by bold geometric designs. Designers experimented with exotic woods and new finishes and materials including metals, mother-of-pearl, ivory, wrought iron, unusual wood veneers, lacquers and plastics. Inspiration was taken from geometric forms, as well as motifs from ancient Egypt and the Empire and Louise XVI periods. Designers included Jacques-Emile Ruhimann, Louis Sue and Rene Lalique.
As products became more mass-produced, the style became more geometrica and linear. The US took over from France as the spiritual centre of the movement. Art Deco declined after 1935, but has enjoyed a revival since the 1960s.
This enduring style refers not to a historical period, but to a way of life. It draws from many eras, including Louis XV, Louis SVI, Regence, Directorie and Louis Phillipe, and represents relaxed country living. Designs are found in the country homes of Normandy, Provence and Bordeaux. Typical of Country French are large farm tables with ladderback chairs, carved oak huches, sideboards and armoires in various finishes.
While this article covers the general characteristics of each era, there was much overlapping of styles. Developed first in Paris, furniture designs filtered through to the regions, sometimes not arriving until 50 years later. The provinces had their own styles too – for example Alsace favoured ornately painted furniture.
Furniture design was also influenced by climate, the types of wood available locally, economic factors and cultural influences. However, the ‘centralism’ practised by the monarchy and continued under the Republic, along with the influence of the Parisian court, mean a number of common features left their mark on regional furniture over the past few centuries.
Regardless of whether you’re looking for fine antiques, rustic pieces or bargain secondhand furniture, you’ll be spoilt for choice in France.