From the opulent curves of the Rococo style to the graceful symmetry of neoclassical design, French furniture is as aesthetically varied as it is historically fascinating. For over two centuries, French furniture makers reigned supreme as the tastemakers of the Western world, informing all of the major design styles that developed in their wake. The French furniture styles that emerged during this period — primarily named for their reigning monarch — continue to influence designers to this day. Read on the learn more about each distinctive period of French furniture design, including telltale ways to identify each of these unique styles.
Louis XIV-Period Bureau Mazarin attributed to Pierre Golle. Circa 1680 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Louis XIV | 1643-1715The longest-serving monarch in French history, King Louis XIV, gained the throne when he was only four years old. Also known as the Sun King, he is best remembered for centralizing the power of the state, thus personifying the idea of the absolute monarch. His reign, which is often referred to as Le Grand Siècle (“the Great Century”), also ushered in a new golden age for the arts, embodied by the lavishly adorned court he presided over at Versailles.
Louis XIV furniture can generally be defined by the following characteristics:
Régence | 1715-1730
When King Louis XIV died in 1715, just four days before his 77th birthday, the throne passed to his great-grandson, Louis XV, who was then only five years old. Due to his young age, the kingdom's rule was given to Philippe d'Orléans (a nephew of Louis XIV of France), who ruled as prince regent until Louis reached the age of 13 in 1723. The period ushered in a new era of design known as the Régence, which lasted until about 1730 when Louis XV began to develop his own distinctive style.
The style of the Régence period is largely considered transitional, marking a departure from the Baroque furniture of the Louis XIV age and presaging the Rococo flourishes favored by Louis XV.
Régence furniture can generally be defined by the following characteristics:
Louis XV | 1730-1760Louis XV furniture is widely regarded as the greatest of all furniture periods, combining creativity, elegance and, above all, comfort. The grandeur of Versailles was abandoned for more intimate settings as the royal court returned to Paris, where cultural salons were held in smaller, more intimate apartments and royal residences. As a result, the bold forms of the Louis XIV period became lighter, smaller and more functional to suit the more relaxed atmosphere.From practical dining chairs to decorative home accessories in classic French style, these furniture pieces were known for their superior craftsmanship and functionality.
The royal mistresses — particularly Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry — are widely regarded as the most influential arbiters of style during this period, ushering in what became known as the Rococo style. Unlike Baroque art, which exuded power, Rococo embodied romance, finding its influence in the undulating curves of natural forms.
Beautiful in appearance, above all Louis XV-period was crafted with comfort and conversation in mind. The card table emerged during this period, and the chaise longue and bergère armchairs were widely popularized. Springs were added to seat cushions in order to make both dining chairs and accent chairs more comfortable, and their arms were shortened to accommodate the fuller skirts favored by women during the period.
While the king lived until 1774, the Louis XV style began to wane around 1760, as more somber, neoclassical art styles began to emerge; these would fully develop during the reign of his successor, Louis XVI.
Louis XV furniture can generally be defined by the following characteristics:
Louis XVI | 1760-1791
While the Louis XVI style began to emerge around 1760, it fully developed during the 19-year reign of King Louis XVI (1774–1793). Rather than adopting the theatrical Rococo style of his grandfather, Louis XVI saw a return to the more orderly silhouettes preferred by his great-great-great-grandfather, Louis XIV. However, smaller proportions remain en vogue, crafted with a new eye for symmetry and elegant simplicity.
The re-discovery of ancient art and architecture at Herculaneum and Pompeii led to a newfound popularity for Greco-Roman antiquities that became known as Neoclassicism. Concurrent with these discoveries was the rise of Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who advocated for the natural rights of man and a return to the morals of the classics. The seeds of the French Revolution were already planted, and the court sensed a growing distaste among the common people for the throne’s opulent wealth.
These political and cultural happenings inevitably influenced the style of the Louis XVI age. Over-the-top opulence and grand city residences were replaced with smaller retreats as the rich attempted to quell the resentments of the French people. However, even though excessive ornamentation was abandoned, quality materials and neoclassical decorations were still widely used, resulting in some of the most classically beautiful pieces of furniture ever made. The clean lines and subtle ornamentation of Louis XVI furniture perfectly complement modern-day interiors, making it among the most popular styles today.
Louis XVI furniture can generally be defined by the following characteristics:
Directoire | 1790 – 1805Following the upheaval of the French Revolution, a new austerity permeated France’s furniture and decorative arts for reasons both economic and political. Not only was the economic situation unstable, but everything associated with the old regime, including royal luxuries and the opulence of the Louis XVI style, was renounced. While it retained the neoclassical influences of its predecessor, the Directoire style favored ornamentation that was far more elegant and reserved, opting instead for more austere forms. Largely considered a transitional style between Louis XVI and Empire furniture, the Directoire style portends the tastes of the Napoléonic era to come.
Directoire furniture can generally be defined by the following characteristics:
Empire | 1804 – 1815
When Napoléon became Emperor in 1804, a new period in the decorative arts was ushered in to legitimize his reign and create the illusion of permanence and power. The new Empire style was so named because it was informed by the classical vocabulary of the great ancient empires. While the Greeks and Romans had long influenced architects and artisans throughout Europe by the time Napoléon came to rule, his iteration of neoclassicism was deliberately propagandistic. Unlike any other ruler who came before him, he successfully used symbols from antiquity in a way that promoted his Empire and linked the regime to the most powerful cultures of the past.
Thanks to a newly booming economy, the austere forms of the Directoire period were abandoned in favor of strikingly large architectural forms with a focus on both quality and luxury. Strong, sharp lines were favored over ornate carving and curves, while ornamental motifs were painstakingly chosen to convey specific meaning relevant to their place.
Symbols of love and seduction such as the swan and the lyre were popular on bedroom and ladies’ furniture, while motifs related to abundance such as cornucopia or horn of plenty appeared on dining furniture. Egyptian forms and motifs also experienced a period of popularity following Napoélon’s Egyptian campaign — caryatids, sphinxes, scarabs and more appeared everywhere, from furniture and porcelain to clothing and jewelry.
After Napoléon fell from power in 1815, the Empire style remained in favor for many decades, and its influence spread throughout Europe, resulting in the German Biedermeier style, the British Regency style and the American Federal style.
Empire furniture can generally be defined by the following characteristics:
French Furniture: From Louis XIII to Art Deco. United Kingdom: Little, Brown and Company, 2001, ed. S. Chadenet
Boger, Louise Ade. The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles. United States, Waveland Press, 1997.