What Are The Main Styles of French Furniture (And How Have They Evolved?)
French antique furniture is appreciated by so many but what is it that distinguishes a period piece from a style piece? While price is a key factor, it really comes down to who was ruling France and when. The style of each king differentiated their reign from others, and the features in French furniture design follow the time periods associated directly with the reign of a particular king, politician or leader. The design of French furniture can be split into two large movements: before the French Revolution (which observed a period of extravagant style) and after the Revolution (which saw the rise of more austere, neoclassical designs).
So, with demand for second-hand French furniture rising year after year, what exactly are the main styles of French furniture that we are buying and how have French furniture styles evolved over the years? Let us look at the below French historical timeline, which summarises some of the key design influences over the years.
900 to 1500: The Middle Ages
The main purposes of furniture during this period were practicality and storage. Large chests or trunks made of oak were common. People used these to store valuables and they were easy to move from one place to another. Chests were also often re-purposed as seats or tables.
1500 to 1610: Renaissance
Many of the designs during this period were influenced by the classicism of the Greeks and Romans. Furniture was crafted with deep carvings and ornate designs, inspired by the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, and depicted mythological or biblical themes. Tables, cabinets and dressers became popular, along with clocks, mirrors and screens.
1610 to 1640: Louis XIII
Furniture became more opulent during the reign of Louis XIII. Cherubs, scrolls, fruit and flowers were all recurring decorative themes, and the middle class fuelled the demand for the French Country look, especially with French Country beds. Furniture became more comfortable and fixed upholstery was discovered. Seats were padded with beautiful tapestry or leather and secured to the wooden frame.
1640 – 1715: Louis XIV
Louis XIV continued to drive the opulent theme, as with his palace at Versailles which exemplified his love for the arts and luxurious pieces. During this period, writing desks, chandeliers and candelabras became popular along with the use of lacquer and gold decorations, which were laid upon intricate carvings.
1715 – 1730: Regence
During this period, France was ruled by Philippe d’Orleans and furniture began to have more curved lines and flowing edges. It was during this time that the cabriole leg was introduced (the s-shaped leg that is seen on so many pieces today). Bookcases and chaise longue also took the nation by storm.
1730 – 1770: Louis XV
This may be one of the best-known furniture design periods of French history as it is heavily characterised by the rococo style (also known as the Louis XV furniture style). This period was especially known for perfecting the French bed style and French bedroom furniture in general, along with the Louis XV chair. Lighter woods were preferred over darker ones, and these were often painted or lacquered. While furniture became more practical and easily transported, it was nonetheless very elegant. Decorative motifs included shells, flowers, fish and birds. This style was particularly popular in the Parisian home, with crystal chandeliers and mantels with trumeau complimenting the furniture.
1770 – 1790: Louis XVI
Furniture during the reign of King Louis XVI become more rustic in style and mahogany was very popular. Straighter lines and right-angles returned, and the cabriole leg was replaced with straight, fluted ones. Chairs were made solely for decorative purposes, rather than for comfort or function (similar to today’s “French bedroom chair”). Decorative motifs remained popular on most French chair styles of this time.
1790 – 1805: Directoire
The extravagance and opulence from the previous reigns subsided somewhat during this period. After the collapse of the monarchy, France entered a period of revolution marked by more austere and subdued neoclassical forms. Pretty motifs were replaced with warlike emblems and furniture was mainly economical. The war led to a decline in furniture quality too and many woods were scarce.
1805 – 1815: Empire
This period saw a continuation of the neoclassical style; however, designs were slightly more opulent and grander. The Empire style was popularised during the reign of Napoleon I, who centralised artistic production so that furniture design was consistent. This style is very striking, and pieces were usually very large with pilasters and columns. Embroidered fabrics and heavy brocade were typically used for upholstery and strong symmetrical designs replaced the ornate carvings and romantics lines of the past. Chairs often had square or rectangular backs with animal claw feet.
1815 – 1830: Restoration
When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, the reintroduction of the monarch saw the desire to return to luxury and opulence. Furniture styles became more delicate and although the larger form and geometric designs from the Empire period continued, they were in lighter woods and mouldings were more delicate.
1830 – 1850: Louis Philippe
During Louis Philippe’s reign, there became a higher focus on functionality. The rise of the bourgeoisie led to softer, sparser designs and softer curves. Coil spring upholstery was also popularised.
1850 – 1880: Napoleon III
During this period, there was an eclectic mix of furniture styles that had been seen in earlier periods and from outside influences. Sometimes, several styles were mixed into the one piece. Nesting tables were popularised during this time, along with tufted (buttoned) chairs and ottomans.
1880 – 1920: Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau is characterised by highly-decorated, fantastical design. It combines flowing curves with asymmetrical shapes and designs of peacocks, swans and feminine sculptures.
1920 – 1940: Art Deco
Art Deco simplified the Art Nouveau style – it was sophisticated with strong geometric designs. Exotic woods were used to carve the furniture (like teak and mahogany) and news woods were used for the detail, such as veneers. Chairs were comfortable and padded with deep seats and small tables were popularised, particularly coffee tables.