Collecting antiques is an interest that delights long after other activities have lost their charm. Through the centuries, different furniture styles have evolved to accommodate social change, artistic influences and new materials. The stylistic differences are numerous, but a little knowledge simplifies identification. While the stylistic evolutions of furniture in France and England are different, they each respond to a shared historical progression in Western Europe. A chronological listing of the periods for both countries follows before concluding with the Federal Period, which has the distinction of being the first generation of truly American design. Read on to learn about the identifying characteristics of the antique furniture styles by period and the unique history behind them.
What is the difference between an artistic style and an art period?
Style relates to the visual characteristics of objects while a period relates to a specific time in history. In many European monarchies, these periods are named and grouped according to the succession of monarchs, as the ruler had an enormous influence on every aspect of culture. The King’s or Queen’s taste dictated the preferences of their courtiers, and that impact rippled through society. In the 20th century, this changed with styles taking the name of major art movements. The conditions of a period in history combined with the collective tastes create an identifiable style for that segment of time.
Each furniture style has a cluster of identifiable characteristics and motifs, but since style evolves organically, late pieces in one period often display aspects of the next. Motifs are design elements that are abstract symbols or recognizable objects like shells. In many artistic styles explored in this article, some motifs come into quick popularity, making appearances on a variety of furniture items before being replaced as the next era begins.
How do you know the time period of your furniture?
While it can be difficult for the untrained eye to date period furniture, especially when there are periods that reflect similar styles, there are ways to tell which era a furniture piece came from.
Changes in design style due to technology can help to date and identify pieces of furniture. For example, the invention of tufting in 1838 predates the mass production of coiled springs, which may help a curious furniture owner narrow down the decade in which their item was produced. Knowing when a certain type of wood was widely used is also helpful. New materials were often introduced when trade expanded. An English antique made of mahogany is not likely to date earlier than 1720, as that year marks the beginning of mahogany's importation to England.
Many authentic antiques are made in the style of another time. A beautiful 19th-century sideboard can be made in the “style” of the Neoclassical period from the 1700s. This period of Neoclassical furniture itself was a revival of design motifs and forms from classical antiquity. In this case, the difference in the woods that are used or construction details will help to identify the period of its creation, not just its stylistic influences.
Furniture Periods and Styles in France
French cabinetmakers have long been renowned for the splendor and exceptionalism of their classic furniture styles. The traditional furniture styles developed in France have a long-reaching influence throughout Europe, particularly in England. From early modern times through the present day, many stylistic movements have ebbed and flowed with French sensibilities. Read on to learn more about some of the most impactful movements in French furniture-making from the 17th through 20th centuries.
Louis XIV (1643-1715)
King Louis XIV of France, reigning at the turn of the 18th century, was the first in a line of three important monarchs who shaped and reshaped French furniture design. One of this king’s most famous undertakings is the construction of the Palace at Versailles. The Palace of Versailles and the regal and dazzling Hall of Mirrors are grand theatrical statements typical of the Baroque period. Louis XIV built Versailles to establish an artistic preeminence in Europe that would reflect France’s position as a new locus of power. France would remain the recognized center of the art world until World War II.
What are the characteristics of Louis XIV’s style?
- Rectilinear shapes and the ordered regularity of symmetrical forms
- Straight and rigid rectangular chairs with high backs
- X-shaped stretchers between chair legs
- Gilt bronze ormolu mounts used to protect furniture edges
The formality of Louis XIV’s court was reflected in strict symmetry and rigidity in furniture placement, but the period was still marked by advancements in cabinetmaking. A seminal development was the fauteuil, or armchair. Previously armchairs had been reserved for the King. André-Charles Boulle’s intricate brass designs inlaid with tortoiseshell or ebony created a legacy that affected generations of designers. The end of the period witnessed the introduction of cabriole legs and the development of the commodes, or chests of drawers, which would become a characteristic piece of the Rococo period under Louis XV.
The Régence period describes a transitional period after Louis XIV’s death until the Dauphin reached an age when he could ascend to the throne as Louis XV. This period saw a softening in forms, exemplified by the introduction of curves in furniture construction and the beginning transformation of Versailles’s marble floors to hardwood parquet. Overall, the Régence furniture style became lighter and more graceful.
What are the characteristics of the Régence style?
- Shorter chair backs
- Cabriole legs
- Wide use of dovetailing construction
- Symmetrical curves now soften rectangular shapes
- Popular motifs: like monkeys
While this period only lasted a few short years, the characteristics and design style of this era would continue to be refined and perfected after Louis XV ascended to the throne.
Louis XV (1723-1765)
The exuberant lightness and femininity of the contemporaneous Rococo period are reflected in the designers’ decorative use of curved lines and a general tone of frivolity. Louis XV preferred his private quarters where his comfort ruled the day. Furniture placement changed to encourage conversational groups. Little occasional tables were finished on all sides so they could float anywhere in the room. Some even had Sèvres porcelain tops. The ultimate innovation in comfort was the Bergeres chair introduced in 1725. These are the deep armchairs where the open space between the arm and seat is closed with upholstery. In 1748 the discovery of Herculeaneum and Pompeii sparked interest in classical forms, and semi-classical motifs began appearing.
What are the characteristics of Louis XV furniture?
- Lacquer, Chinese forms and Chinoiserie are widely used
- Large mirrors
- Continued use of bronze mounts to protect furniture edges
- Exotic woods used in complicated veneers and marquetry art. Marquetry is floral wood inlay in veneer form
- 1755-1760 white paint on furniture dominated. This is called blanc de Plomb
- Pastel color palettes
- Bombe commodes with swelled and curved fronts and sides
- Popular motifs: Chinoiserie, classical motifs, cherubs, floral sprays, rockery
- New furniture forms were introduced: the bergère, the sofa, dressing tables, the drop leaf desk and upright secrétaire, small side tables
New artistic heights in veneers and marquetry were made possible by the Corporation des Menuisiers-Ébénistes, a guild controlled by the crown. This group regulated furniture production, enabling cabinetmakers to invest large amounts of time into more intricate designs as they were protected from competition. The ébénistes, or cabinetmakers, imported exotic woods for their complicated veneers, marquetry and parquetry. The menuisers made chairs, sofas, stools and beds.
Louis XVI (1750-1793)
The influence of classical interior design during Louis XVI’s reign spurred a return to more geometric and linear forms with a focus on proportion. Louis XVI’s style reinvigorates interest in the Neoclassical style, which continued to influence design even after his reign. The period also saw the return of rectilinear shapes, an increased weight to furniture, and a simplification of ornamentation that added a more restrained tone. Moving away from the frivolity of the Rococo style, this era introduced the first formal dining room tables and other innovations.
What are the characteristics of Louis XVI -style furniture?
- Curve of furniture legs straightened
- Multi-use items became very popular
- Mahogany was in-vogue, and simple veneers displaying the beauty of grain patterns eventually replaced complicated veneers
- Chair arms moved forward to align with the front legs, but a new curved line joined the arm on the back of the chair
- Chairs and beds were often painted Trianon gray
- Popular motifs: ribbons, lyres, caryatids, Greek Sphinxes, inset porcelain plaques, Chinoiserie
This is the era that marks the life and legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte after his victorious Egyptian military campaign and his crowning as Emperor in 1804. Opulence and rich embellishments were the fashion. The abolition of professional guilds during the Revolution ended the era of the ébéniste and resulted in the simplification of wood applications.
What are the characteristics of Empire style furniture?
- Egyptian influences replace Greek
- Massive mahogany pieces embellished with gilt bronze ornamentation
- Round solid mahogany pedestal tables and massive mahogany sleigh beds are signature pieces
- Lions legs and use of caryatids become prolific
- Animal forms included swans, eagles and bees
- Popular motifs: laurel wreaths, winged lions, palmetto leaves and pine cones
Restoration, Charles X (1815-1830)
The Restoration era marks the period when the Bourbons reclaimed the French throne after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. In furniture design, a marked softening of the Empire style resulted. Furniture on a smaller scale became important as the rising middle class occupied city apartments.
What are the characteristics of Restoration-style furniture?
- Curved lines
- Lighter furniture with less mass
- Use of lighter wood inlaid with darker wood
- Popular motifs: small flowers, delicate beading and musical instruments
Second Empire (1852-1871)
Napoleon III’s reign was a time of modernization and transformation that gave rise to an intense eclecticism. This is when Parisian hallmarks like the Paris Opera house, wide boulevards, and vistas were created. The Empress Eugénie’s fascination with Marie Antoinette led to the liberal inclusion of ribbons, baskets and other Neoclassical motifs combined with the arabesques, pagodas, caryatids, gilt-bronze and black lacquer that were so popular. The French design sensibilities of this period were very similar to that of the English Victorian age across the Channel, and there were shared styles.
Second Empire Ormolu and Ebony Jewelry Cabinet by Giroux. Dated 1866. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
Art Nouveau (1890-1914)
Art Nouveau refers to a French and Belgian style characterized by flowing organic forms. The style joins floral and pictorial marquetry with Japanese influence and a heavy dash of French Symbolism. The resulting designs often incorporate swirls, blobs and whiplash motifs. The two major branches of Art Nouveau are Samuel Bing’s group and the School of Nancy. The famous designer Émile Gallé was the central figure of the School of Nancy. Art Nouveau designers also produced plentiful quantities of lamps, glassware, ceramics and paintings.
Art Nouveau Room Screen by Alexandre Charpentier. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
Art Deco (1920-1945)
Designers sought a modern austere purity expressed by cleaner lines and tighter forms in reaction to the sinuous shapes of Art Nouveau. Art Deco adopted new materials like bakelite and shagreen and combined them with tortoiseshell, leather and lacquer. The clean lines combined with the celebration of natural materials created the first international modern style. René Lalique, a renowned Art Nouveau jeweler, turned his attention to glass and embraced the Art Deco style.
If these styles pique your interest, learn more about the differences between art deco vs art nouveau.
Furniture Periods and Styles in England
Much like their admired neighbors across the Channel, England faced several centuries of aesthetic and mechanical transformations in furniture, often aligned with royal succession. Each monarch brought their own tastes, whether inspired by French ébénistes or taking advantage of the skill of talented cabinetmakers across Great Britain, and created unique styles to align with their visions of leadership and political legitimacy. Read on to hear more about furniture periods and styles in England.
The Georgian Period includes the reign of King George I, King George II and King George III. Considered the Golden Age of English furniture, the elegance and lasting influence of the Georgian period can be attributed to the publication of seminal design pattern books by three respected cabinetmakers: Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.
This period is also referred to as the Age of Mahogany. This dark wood was first imported to England from Cuba in 1720 and its introduction offered possibilities to the cabinetmaker that walnut could not. This superb wood’s availability made carving the decoration of choice over inlays and marquetry. The composition of the wood was well suited to carving and easily yielded crisp forms without splintering.
What are the characteristics of Georgian style furniture?
Early Georgian (1714-1727)
- Pediment tops were widely used on cabinetry
- General absence of carvings
- Design similar to Queen Anne with a central splat in a chair back and cabriole legs
- Legs ended in carved lions masks or ball feet
- The heavy corner chair was a defining piece of the period
Middle Georgian (1727-1760)
- Age of Chippendale — Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director dominates design
- A succession of styles for backs of chairs and pediments works from Rococo and Chinese to Gothic
- Straight leg eventually replaces the cabriole with a ball and claw foot
- Secretaries and clock cases from this period are exceptional
- Refined and elegant appearance
- Chinese-influenced motifs, including fretwork and pagoda-style pediment tops
Late Georgian (1760-1820)
- Age of Sheraton and Hepplewhite — introduce the sideboard
- Qualities: tapered, straight or turned leg replaces the cabriole; generally lighter construction; chairs smaller and more delicate
- Streamlined rectilinear forms dominate
- Later work rich in contrasting inlay of satinwood, tulip-wood and ebony
- Popular motifs: the urn, the laurel wreath, sunburst, ribbon-bands, egg and dart, shell and lion’s-head patterns
- Brass handles and hardware
Regency Period (1820-1830)
The period was marked by an avid assimilation of widely variant design inspirations with a core thread of interest in new academic studies and findings on Greco-Roman culture. Designers in this era sought to revive ancient furniture forms not simply decorate current forms with design motifs. Thomas Hope created chairs based on the Greek Klismos chair. At the time the current style was called “Grecian”.
What are the characteristics of Regency style furniture?
- Structural simplicity and severity of form with elaborate and fanciful decorations
- Piranesi’s beauty of the grotesque
- Pugin’s gothic chairs
- Use of animal parts as main components of furniture structure
- Popular motifs: winged griffons, lion paws, lion heads
Victorian Period ( 1837-1901)
Queen Victoria’s reign coincided with the final gasp of English imperialism and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. As a result, furniture making changed from a craft into an industry. Combined with an excessive interest in past styles, Victorian era furniture is perhaps best characterized by an explosion of eclectic revivalism.
What are the characteristics of Victorian furniture styles?
- Furniture was more monumental and conceived on a larger scale
- Dark woods dominated with lavish and ornate carvings
- Round pedestal tables with claw feet were the rage
- Sofas took the shape of the recamier style
- Backs of chairs were crested with volutes
Edwardian England was an age of elegance, garden parties, pink champagne and the glamorous life of the landed aristocrat. The overriding theme was nostalgic escapism. This was when the weekend and the game of bridge was invented. It was their last gasp before WWI and Yeats’ cry of the center does not hold that heralded the modern age.
What are the characteristics of the Edwardian style?
- The use of painted decoration and new materials like wicker and bamboo
- More restrained use of inlays than the late Georgian period of Hepplewhite and Sheraton
- Borrowed the simple clean lines and forms of the late Georgian style
- Lighter, more delicate forms and structure in comparison to the heavy ornamentation of Victorian era furniture
- Popular motifs: florals
- Popular designers: Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, René Lalique
Federal Style Furniture in America
Early American furniture closely resembled its European counterparts. One furniture maker that made his mark across the Atlantic was Thomas Chippendale. Cabinetmakers in the American colony had faithfully used Thomas Chippendale’s pattern book with their own adaptations to local tastes and materials. When Independence was won, they turned from Chippendale style furniture to the Neoclassical style of the Adams brothers, following the lead of Thomas Jefferson who was in the process of building his beloved Monticello in the American version of Neo-Palladianism. Marked differences exist between furniture created in Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston, yet all generally follow the pattern books of Hepplewhite and Sheraton with modifications. Still, there were unifying characteristics to the style, which newly minted Americans dubbed Federal in honor of the ratification of the Federal Constitution in 1788.
What are the characteristics of American Federal Style Furniture?
- American cabinetmakers used pieceworks created by journeymen who traveled to find work
- Modifications to original patterns using the different forms distinguish the different regions
- Local woods like pine, tulip-poplar, chestnut, white cedar, cypress and birch were used
- Scrolled pediments were popular
- American sideboards were designed with cabinets flanking the central compartment while their English counterparts used drawers.
- A rich interplay of masses and voids creates a delicacy and grace in the best pieces
Antiques are markers of our collective human story and hold a resonance that lends character and charm to the contemporary home. The wide variety of styles, shapes and sizes creates countless options. A well-chosen antique can add gravitas or panache to any interior while holding its secrets and stories. Browse M.S. Rau’s entire collection of antique furniture to find a piece that speaks to you.
Costantino, Ruth T. How to Know French Antiques. Bramhall House Book, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. New York, 1961.
Charlish, Anne (Editor) Introduction by Watson, Sir Francis. The History of Furniture. updated and revised edition printed by Crescent Books, New York, 1982. Original edition printed by Orbis Publishing Ltd, London, 1976.
Large, David. “SOME ASPECTS OF SOCIAL LIFE IN EDWARDIAN ENGLAND.” University Review, vol. 2, no. 5, 1961, pp. 26–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45241616. Accessed 26 Aug. 2022.
Yates, Raymond F. and Marguerite W. A Guide to Victorian Antiques. Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York 1949
McClinton, Katharine Morrison. An Outline of Period Furniture. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. New York, 1972.
Morris, Barbara. “The 1952 Exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts at the Victoria and Albert Museum: A Personal Recollection.” The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 - the Present, no. 25, 2001, pp. 11–24. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41809310. Accessed 26 Aug. 2022.
Kubler, George. “Period, Style and Meaning in Ancient American Art.” New Literary History, vol. 1, no. 2, 1970, pp. 127–44. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/468624. Accessed 26 Aug. 2022.