We’ve created the French styles of furniture guide for your reference. Each type has a description including materials, style, provenance, and circa are provided for each item. Dimensions are provided in inches.
Pieces crafted during a specific stylistic period are described by the period name (i.e. Louis XV armoire). Pieces crafted in a specific style, but later than the period of origin are described as “in the style of…” (i.e. Louis XV style armoire).
The Middle Ages – 900 to 1500
Furniture in the Middle Ages had to be practical above all else. Large chests of simple construction were made of heavy oak to discourage thieves. The chest or trunk was the most important piece of furniture used to contain valuables and designed to be moved from place to place. They were used as a seat by day, a bed by night (with cushions) and also as tables.
Early furniture followed the lines of medieval architecture. Carving reflected that of churches and cathedrals although few pieces were carved (mostly for the very wealthy or special occasions, such as marriages). Toward the end of the Middle Ages, furniture design reflected the Gothic trend that the architecture was going through at the time. Carving became heavier and more complex, featuring animals and grotesque heads. The cupboard was introduced.
Renaissance – 1500 to 1610
The Renaissance (or “revival”) started in Italy and reached its height in the 15th century. Under the reign of Louis XII, France seized Milan and returned to France with Italian ideas and craftsmen. The French Renaissance came into its own when Frances I (François 1er), a patron of the arts, took the throne in 1515.
After various Greek and Roman antiquities were unearthed, interest in classicism was sparked and French craftsmen created furniture with deeply carved and ornate designs. Buffets and cabinets were made to look like small buildings with columns, balustrades, windows and panels, similar to Roman or Greek architecture. Furniture often featured ornamentation inspired by Michelangelo and Raphael, or depicted mythological or biblical themes.
Furniture was becoming lighter. Tables took on finer lines and carving, cabinets and dressers replaced chests and cupboards. Clocks, mirrors and screens became more commonplace. Oak was the predominantly used wood. Fruitwoods, such as walnut, were also introduced.
Louis XIII – 1610-1640
Louis XIII furniture featured massive, solid construction with geometric carving. Furniture design was more opulent with cherubs, scrolls, fruit and flowers as recurring decorative themes.
The emerging middle class of this time fueled the demand for furniture. The French country look was developed for the provincial bourgeois desiring nice furniture yet living far from Paris where the best pieces could be found.
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. The seats and backs of chairs were padded and leather or tapestry was secured to the chair’s wooden frame.
Louis XIV – 1640-1715
Louis XIV, also known as “The Sun King”, had the longest reign of any European monarch. His focus on opulence and splendor was imposed upon France. The Palace at Versailles is a lasting example of his love of the arts and luxury. French court furniture was built for grandeur rather than comfort and only the king was allowed to sit in an armchair. Stools and benches were covered in velvet, silk, damask, and gold brocade. Chairs and settees were just as elaborate.
Furniture introduced in this period includes the writing table or desk and finely detailed chests, which became one of the most important furniture types of the 18th century. The finest materials were used and the furniture is characterized 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.
There was an increasing fascination with the Far East and all things Asian. French craftsmen copied the style and added flourishes of their own. This was the beginning of “chinoiserie“. The “Os de Mouton” chair is the one of the most significant pieces of the era. As the name implies, this chair had curved legs shaped like those of a lamb.
Régence – 1715-1730
Following the death of Louis XIV, his 5 year old great grandson (and heir to the throne) became Louis XV. Since he was too young to take the throne, his uncle Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was appointed as Regent. The transition between the monarchs became known as the French Regency. Offended by the spectacle of Versailles during the Sun King’s reign, the Duke moved the royal court to Paris, where courtiers lived in less extravagant hotel particuliers or private residences.
It was in this period that the apartment came into being. An apartment of this time, although lavish by today’s standards, would have been a much more intimate setting than the fortress and cathedral like homes of the prior periods. The smaller scale of these homes introduced an era of lighter, more graceful furniture. Asymmetrical curved lines replaced symmetrical straight lines and simple wood veneer replaced extravagant marquetry.
Flowing curves are found throughout Régence furniture. The “bombé“style commode was developed with plump sides and a convex curved front. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the period was the introduction of the cabriole leg. This carved ‘S’ shaped leg was used in armoires, bookcases, desks, sofas, and chairs.
Louis XV – 1730 to 1770
Louis XV reigned over the “Golden Age” of French decorative style. His rule was characterized by peace and prosperity during which the “Age of Enlightenment” brought about intellectualism and increasing influence by women of the court. Because of this, Louis XV style furniture (also known as rococo) was exquisite with graceful, feminine lines.
While the Baroque style of Louis XIV was focused on symmetry, rococo favored the asymmetry that came from the Régence era. Fruit woods and rosewood took the place of darker woods. Wood would often be painted or lacquered. Extravagant marquetry and veneers were used as well as ornamental, gilded bronze. Many themes were used in the rococo style and decorative motifs included foliage, flowers, shells, fish, birds, vines, hearts, and ribbons. Parisian homes of this period had large crystal chandeliers and mantels with mirrored painted panels (trumeaux).
Louis XV favored furniture suited to conversation. His chair maker (Jean-Baptiste Tilliard) created the bergère, a curved armchair with a low seat and an exposed wooded frame which was highly carved and often gilded. This elaborate decoration showed that the chair was meant to be free standing and movable rather than placed against a wall.
Other new pieces to appear in this period included the secrétaire (fall-front writing desk), table-à-écrire (writing table), and bureau-à-cylindre (roll-top desk).
Transition – 1750-1775
The most prevalent new design influence was public interest in the Roman excavations (Pompeii and Herculaneum). Lines were more angular, and the Greek “key” pattern was created. There were less curves and chair frames became thinner.
Louis XVI – 1770 to 1790
The Louis XVI period marked a return to symmetry, straight lines and classical ornamentation. In 1748, the unearthing of Pompeii brought about a classical revival in furniture making. This Neo-Classical style offered a contrasting response to the Rococo of Louis XV which came to be thought of as frivolous.
While the motifs of the natural world survived (garlands, urns, laurels, dolphins and eagles), they were paired with geometric designs. One of the popular woods of the period was mahogany, which had to be imported and was therefore used only for fine furniture. Instead of the cabriole leg of the Régence and Louis XV periods, a straight, tapered and (often) fluted leg was preferred. Case pieces, such as commodes and buffets, became more angular. Chairs of the period were fashioned in a wide variety of styles. The medallion and oval backed chairs are the most notable, although lyre or vase shaped backs were also common.
For the first time, during the Louis XVI period, chairs were made for solely for decorative purposes rather than comfort or function.
Directoire – 1790 to 1805
Following the French Revolution and execution of Louis XVI there was a natural break from the lavish royal style. The monarchy was gone and France was governed by the Directoire executif (executive directory), from which the name of the style derives. The Directoire period is much more subdued and austere (although many of the themes of the simpler late Louis XVI furniture continued). Geometric patterns were less extravagant. Motifs include arabesque and Etruscan themes, wreaths, torches, and other warlike emblems (reminiscent of the Revolution).
Overall, the circumstances of the war led to a decline in furniture quality and the availability of materials. Brass was often used in place of gilt-bronze and imported woods such as rosewood and mahogany were scarce. Most Directoire pieces were made of walnut and other fruitwoods which could be found in France.
Empire – 1805 to 1815
After many years of political instability, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. As the Empire period began, the economy boomed and a new haute bourgeois aristocracy who would desire fine furniture and decoration appeared.
Empire furniture is usually large and architectural elements such as columns and pilasters are common. Mahogany and rosewood, as well as ebonized wood were quite popular. Furniture would be decorated with brass and ormolu and inlaid with ivory or mother of pearl. Upholstering was done with embroidered fabrics and heavy brocade, often in bold stripes. Strong symmetrical designs replaced ornate carvings and rounded romantic shapes. Chairs often had stiff, square or rectangular backs and animal claw feet.
In its plainest form, Empire style is dignified and striking; however, furniture and decorative arts of the period are notable for exhibiting a confusion of motifs. Artisans of the time were still heavily influenced by classical Greek and Roman design. A Napoleonic campaign into Egypt brought back a desire for Egyptian motifs, such as sphinxes. Napoleonic symbols were used regularly, specifically the initial “N”, the emperor’s monogram, and the bee(his emblem). Other design elements regularly found in Empire pieces are dolphins, swans, and mythical creatures.
Restoration – 1815 to 1830
Following the defeat and abdication of Napoleon in 1814, France restored the monarchy and Charles X took the throne. The royalty and aristocracy desired a return to luxury and opulence and there was a distinct shift to delicate,rounded forms, and fine decoration in furniture. The large form and geometric design of Empire furniture continued but lighter woods, such aselm and ash, were introduced and used with, or instead of, mahogany.
Coinciding with the reinstatement of the monarchy was the Industrial Revolution. An increasingly prosperous middle class brought about a heightened demand for furniture and innovations in manufacturing made that possible with new methods for furniture making.
Louis Philippe – 1830 to 1850
Charles X was overthrown in 1830 and Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, became France’s new leader. He managed both royalists to his right and radicals to the left, while sympathizing with the bourgeois class.
Louis Philippe period furniture maintained the simple, rounded lines of the Restoration, but with less ornamentation. The function of furniture was of prime importance. Walnut and mahogany were the predominant woods.Tables and commodes often had marble tops. A characteristic trait of case pieces in the Louis Philippe style is the “doucine“(soft curve). At the top of buffets, chests, armoires and secretaries a slight curvature is often seen, lending softness to the otherwise straight lines common of the period.
Napoleon III – 1850 to 1880
The “Second Empire” came about when Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) declared himself emperor as Napoleon III. Drawing on the past 500 years of French style, the Napoleon III style is an eclectic and somewhat ostentatious mix. Often several furniture styles were mixed for a single piece of furniture. Whimsical shapes, painted wood and mother of pearl were common. Dark woods, ebonized or “japanned” woods, cast iron, paper maché and ivory inlay were implemented. Cabinets, commodes and desks crafted in the manner of Boulle and similar renowned craftsmen of the 18th century became a feature of fashionable salons, though such pieces tended to lack the finesse of the original.
Nesting tables appeared for the first time, as did tilt top “guéridons” or center foot tables. Floating chairs (ottomans, poufs…) as well as richly decorated and very comfortable chairs (chaises, “confidents” or secrets chairs, indiscreet sofas, reclining chairs…) were introduced with thickly padded and tufted upholstery, decorative tassels, braids and skirts.
Art Nouveau – 1880 to 1920
Art Nouveau was, in many ways, a response to the Industrial Revolution. While many people were excited by the advancements in technology and manufacturing, others were staunchly against the idea of mass-produced goods. Designers of the latter inclination were focused on individual craftsmanship and harmony. Art Nouveau is exemplified by organic themes: highly-stylized, flowing curvilinear forms, asymmetrical shapes, and plant motifs, used to create a highly decorated, fantastical style.Insects, swans, peacocks and, last but certainly not least, the female body, added to the supple lines and flowing features of this style.
Art Deco – 1920 to 1940
Art Deco is a simplification of the Art Nouveau style. Forms are sophisticated and feature strong geometric designs. Exotic woods such as rosewood, teak, and mahogany were used. Many materials were used for detail, such as veneers, lacquers and high French polish, plastic, Lucite and metal.
The clean lines of Art Deco period furniture lends itself to integration with other, earlier styles – such as Louis Philippe or Louis XVI. Chairs of this style period lean towards the Directoire or Restoration styles, with comfortable, deep seats, upholstered in fabrics or leather, sometimes entirely. Tables are round, oval or rectangular and many new table forms come into being such as the coffee table, tea table, and other small side tables.