Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Furniture Time Travel: A touch of French romance


Ever wondered what is with the French cabinet-makers and the hullabaloo regarding Louis XVI tables? Well, here’s your quick guide to decoding the basics of French furniture history and perhaps, bringing some of that romance home.

French furniture has a history that’s as rich as the nation as itself. From the Middle Ages when the furniture was largely improvised to the famous pieces created during the time of Louis VI and then Napoleon, it’s had a long and eventful journey.

It might have taken a century for France to come in contact with the Italian Renaissance but once it did, its effects were to be seen everywhere. Cabinets became chests, chairs were padded, and tables became highly sculpted. During the reign of Louis XIII, the French furniture-makers discovered bead and spiral turning, perfected veneering and began working with metal.

Marie-Antoinette's bureau-plat
However, the reign of Louis XIV saw the beginning of the golden era of French making that the world would remember for a long, long time to come. Versailles was in all its glory with its best cabinet-makers and decorators in attendance. The commode or chest of drawers appeared with ornate brass pulls and key escutcheons. Tables began to be designed for more specific functions such as gaming and writing, and drawers were introduced in the band just below the top which was covered in something other than simple hardwood so as to be more friendly to the quill and the bureau-plat was born. At the same time legs became more figural. Faces of gods, bearded fauns, arabesques, nymphs, goddesses, allegories, cornucopia, and foliage abounded as did the sun, which was the royal emblem. The wood used was pear, walnut, natural woods and imported ebony and other precious woods. Gilded bronze decorations were very popular. Copper, pewter, silver, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl was found in the marquetry which basically means inlay work.

A slow transition from thereon saw the emergence of asymmetry in the times of Louis XV; just as the taste for secrecy pervading the French society resulted in a profusion of hiding places that opened with springs.

The reign of Louis XVI saw the discovery of the city of Pompeii and a resurgence of interest in all things Roman. This style is also known as the Neo Classical style. Furniture became simpler and less ornate. Furniture legs became straight and the backs of chairs became oval, rectangular or shield-like.  Designs became more simplified. Marquetry was abandoned in favour of more austere decorations. Geometric patterns were still prevalent but less extravagant than before. Greek ornamental designs became popular, like the sphynx, gryphon, and the Grecian urn. Egyptian motifs also emerged.

This love for Egyptian motifs continued into the Empire period when Napoleon ruled over France. They were seen gracing several marble tops, as were the Napoleonic symbols of the eagle and the prolific N which stood for Napoleon. Unlike the preceding styles it relied heavily on shiny veneer rather than wood carving and relied on size to convey its intentions. 
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