The medieval style comprised a succession of styles from the Romanesque style (primarily utilitarian furniture: beds, tables, and chests) to the Gothic era (more sophisticated combined furniture).
The Gothic influence was still very present and the French style was similar to the Italian style. The most common form of furniture was a large wardrobe in one or two sections. Chests disappeared and were replaced by cabinets (furniture with drawers and compartments for storing precious objects). The tapestries and wall hangings were flamboyant and embellished with gold and silver threads.
Often called baroque, this style is one of ornamentation and furnishings encompassing the period from 1590 to 1660 (Louis XIV’s majority). It was inspired by many foreign influences (Italian and Flemish). Louis XIII furniture is restrained and rectilinear. Various kinds of turned wood were used and mouldings were very common. Chairs were upholstered with thick and rich fabrics.
This style of furnishing more or less corresponded to the reign of Louis XIV (1661 to 1715). Louis XIV furniture was no longer utilitarian but became a highly luxurious decorative element. New forms of furniture appeared: chests of drawers, fauteuils with projecting wings, and desks (attributed to Boulle). Bronze and copper and tortoiseshell marquetry were widely used for ornamentation. Walnut, oak, and chestnut were the most commonly used woods.
This was a transitional style, somewhere between the Louis XIV and Louis XV styles. New forms of furniture were invented and made: tables de toilette (dressing tables), console tables, buffets à deux corps (in two sections), and bergères (a chair with closed arms). There was a taste for lightness and elegance.
The Louis XV style, between 1720 and 1755–60, is also known as rocaille or rococo. Louis XV furniture is very refined and comfort was the primary aim. Multifunctional furniture was much sought after. The bergère (a chair with closed arms) was the most representative form of seating in this era. The tables have curved legs and the desks are adorned with marquetry and bronze. On the whole, the furniture is delicate and feminine.
The Transitional style, as indicated by its name, was an experimental style that illustrated the evolution from Louis XV to Louis XVI. The furniture became more architectural and gradually abandoned the curves. Surfaces became flatter. Ebony and bronze were reintroduced. The furniture had simpler contours and was well proportioned. The bureau à dos d’âne (drop-leaf desk), and the secrétaire à abattant (desk with a drop lid) emerged.
Between 1750 and around 1795, the Louis XVI style abandoned the curvilinear designs of the Louis XV style and adopted straight lines with remarkably light decorative elements. In the Louis XVI style the brightly coloured paintings were replaced by pink and pale grey hues enhanced with fine gold fillets. Marquetry made from precious woods adorned many pieces of furniture: the ensemble is discreet, restrained, and joyous.
The Directoire style spans a very brief period from 1795 to 1799. It was caught up in the movement characterised by the desire to return to a sort of antique purity of form. The most characteristic piece of this style is the lit de repos (daybed), of Greek inspiration.
Thanks to greater knowledge about antiquity, and under the influence of Napoleon I, the ornamental art of this period was characterised by massive and imposing elements. The furniture, guéridons (pedestal tables), and seats assumed classical forms with ornamental decorations borrowed from the ancients. Mahogany, embellished with gilt bronze, characterised the Empire style. Beds were created in new forms, such as the lit en bateau (boat-shaped bed). Despite its rigorous lines, the Empire style has a certain nobility.
The Empire style continued during the reigns of Louis XVIII (1814–1824) and Charles X (1824–1830). The most characteristic examples of the so-called ‘Restauration’ style were the tables and chairs: light tables with lyre supports and ‘gondola’ chairs. The desks are large (the bureau de minister, or kneehole desk) and standing psyches form a broad base.
The Louis Philippe style was inspired by a desire for comfort and economy. The furniture is bulky and not particularly original. Tables became heavier. Buffets were in two sections. The typical desk was the hefty bureau minister (kneehole desk), and the chest of drawers with three drawers gradually replaced the wardrobe. Padded seats appeared circa 1830. They were embellished with fringes and furbelows that concealed the legs. This marked the beginning of industrialised furniture manufacture.
The Napoleon III style placed great importance on ornamentation and decorations. Bare wood was replaced by blackened wood that further highlighted the tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl inlay that was so fashionable. Many types of furniture were invented: poufs, crapaud (literally ‘toad’) armchairs, and boudeuses (a seating unit with a backrest in the centre and a seat on each side). The furniture was richly ornamented. All the seats were embellished with fringes.
The Art Nouveau style marked the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new era. The furniture was made from exotic woods. The lines of the chairs, tables, beds, wardrobes, and armchairs are very serpentine and curved. Art Nouveau furniture is rounded, with rounded edges, and often supported on socles. Mouldings were rarely used.
The Art Déco style was named after the 1925 exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris. The divan d’angle (‘cosy-corner’, inserted into wood panelling) was all the rage. In Art Déco furniture, the chests of drawers were rounded. On seating wood was not apparent and often covered in leather. Ladies’ furniture (coiffeuses and desks) was very refined.
The main focus was on the functional side of the furniture. The decorative elements were very poetic and even complemented metal furniture. There was a trend for waxed wood, steel tubing, aluminium, and rattan furniture.