past & present: french chairs + diy project

julialouischairs
louis chair illustration by julia rothman print available at julia’s website!

I love French style! And French style usually means you’ll find a Louis chair somewhere in the mix! But it wasn’t until I really studied the heyday of French style – the 18th century – that I began to get a handle on what was what. Luckily, I had some fantastic teachers. (One of whom double-checked my chair identification! Thanks, Laura!)  No longer is there any reason to confuse your Louis XVI with your Louis XV! Here’s my little guide to all the Louis chairs!

allthelouis
clockwise from top left: louis xiii, louis xiv, louis xv and louis xvi

All of our Louis were of the House of Bourbon. The only Bourbon king not on our chair list is Henry IV. With all apologies to the Henry, we’re going to stick with the Louis. Not only is it convenient that all our guys are named Louis, it also makes some practical sense. It was during the reign of Louis XIII that furniture became comfortable for the first time (although that obsession with comfort wouldn’t take off until the 18th century). It’s not surprising that the furniture styles were named for the reigning monarch. For centuries, fashions came from the top, down – unlike now, where you can see street fashion on the runway. Each new king had his own style that differentiated his reign from the others. Of course, there is never a rigid divide from one style to the next and there were a couple of transitional styles as tastes changed, but for our purpose, we’ll leave the transitional styles ’til another time and concentrate on the high points of the Louis styles.

fleurdelis
fleur-de-lis design from The New York Public Library
Capetian Dynasty, House of Bourbon (1589-1792)
Henry IV (1589-1610)
Louis XIII (1610-1643)
Louis XIV (1643 -1715)
Louis XV (1715-1774)
Louis XVI (1774 – 1792)

candleproject5
louis xvi-inspired candlestick project: full instructions after the jump!

CLICK HERE for the rest of the post – including facts to know and a short reading list (and a fun Louis XVI DIY candlestick project!) after the jump!

Louis XIII chair – Late Renaissance Style
The typical Louis XIII chair was short in the back and square in shape and would have been covered with leather or tapestry, which would be fastened to the chair with large brass nails. For some added oomph, the back and seat often had a fringe.

louisxiiichairs1stdibs

The image above is of Louis XIII-style chairs on 1st dibs (selling for $7,900). This pair is from the 19th century and mimics the early Louis XIII straight back, curved arms and turned legs.

Louis XIV (the Sun King) – Baroque Style
During the era of Louis XIV there was a breakthrough in chair construction, with the back becoming higher and the seat becoming larger to accommodate the more ample space required by the fashions of his day. The arms and legs of the chair are usually heavily carved. These are big chairs made for large rooms! (Note: the Baroque Style was initially brought to France from Italy by Catherine de Medici – I told you she was stylish!)

louis-xiv-chair-hoentschel-collection-metropolitan-museum
from the Hoentschel Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art (check out the feet!)

Louis XIV was the French monarch for 72 years, 3 months and 18 days – his reign is the longest documented of any European monarch to date. If there ever was a monarch who understood the power of the decorative arts, it was Louis XIV.  After all, this is the Louis who was responsible for the court’s move to Versailles. He transformed that simple hunting lodge into the most magnificent palace in the country bringing artisans from all over the world to France, which cemented the 18th century as the century of the French.

Louis XIV is quoted as saying “There is nothing that indicates more clearly the magnificence of great princes than their superb palaces and their precious furniture.”   This period of design is known for its splendor and opulence.  The furniture was large in scale with elaborate ornamentation. Louis XIV loved solid silver furniture. And he commissioned a number of solid silver pieces that included candlesticks, massive tables, benches and stools – unfortunately he also loved war. In 1689 due to mounting war debts, Louis XIV ordered all silver (his own and those belonging to other nobility) to be melted down. (He also ordered another melting a few years later – would have been nice to see some of that silver!)


Louis XV – Rococo Style
The Louis XV chair often has a similar scale to the Louis XVI chair. The easiest difference to spot is in the legs. The Louis XV chair has that curved cabriole leg.

louisxvchairsgetty
This pair of chairs were actually commissioned by Louis XV in 1762. This pair was part of a large furniture order for Versailles from the carver Nicolas-Quinbert Foliot that included 14 armchirs, 28 side chairs, 9 beds and 7 firescreens! The chairs are part of the collection at the Getty Museum.

When Louis XIV died (in 1715), his heir, Louis XV was only 5 years old. Until 1723, the Duke de Orleans was appointed the regent, and court became a quieter, simpler place (he moved the court from Versailles back to Paris).  The transition from Louis XIV to Louis XV is really all about comfort. Comfort was the key word in the 18th century.
privateapartments
photo: Ethan Robey

Louis XV was married to the Polish princess Marie Leszczynska, but the Queen spent most of her married life in seclusion and the most influential woman at court was Madame de Pompadour. Madame de Pompadour was just one in a succession of royal mistresses, but even after her romantic relationship with the king ended, they remained friends and Pompadour continued to live at Versailles. Pompadour was such a taste maker that there were even colors named after her – Pompadour pink and Pompadour blue! The image above is of Madame de Pompadour’s private apartments at Versailles. Let’s examine her chairs – the chair on the left has a caned back. Anytime, you see caning you can date the chair as after Louis XIV. (Caning wasn’t widely used until the Regency period, when Louis XV was still a child and the Duke de Orleans was Regent). Also note that the chairs all have the cabriole leg – another sign that they belong in the Louis XV classification.

Louis XVI – Neoclassical Style
While there are many chair varieties in the Louis XVI style, they are quite easy to spot – because the Louis XVI chair always has that fluted leg!
louisxvi2ndpass

In 1719, the town of Herculaneum was discovered and although the site of Pompeii had been known since 1594, it wasn’t until the 18th century that serious excavations were started on both sites. Although tastes slowly transitioned from the curved lines of the rococo to the straight line of the neoclassical throughout the 18th century. By the time of Louis XVI, the curved lines of his father’s furniture were decidedly unfashionable.

Although  Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were incarcerated and ultimately guillotined during the French Revolution, the neoclassical style had a lasting power. During the reign of Emperor Napoleon, the neoclassical style was revived – that incarnation of neoclassical is known as the Directoire period. But we’ll save that for another post!

chairwall
photo: Ethan Robey

Do you know your Louis chairs now? The ultimate test is the gallery of chairs at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Anyone up for a design*sponge field trip?

Facts to Know

  1. Louis XIII = Late Renaissance; Louis XIV = Baroque; Louis XV = Rococo; Louis XVI = Neoclassical
  2. a little french chair vocabularly:   bergère – an armchair with enclosed sides     fauteuils – an open wood-frame armchair
  3. In 1778, Louisville, Kentucky home of the Kentucky Derby (and the mint julep!) was named after Louis XVI!

Reading List
The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual – And the Modern Home Began by Joan Dejean – I picked up an advance copy of this book at the Strand, but as of today it’s available on Amazon and in bookstores. If you’re looking for a decorative arts history books that’s also a good read, I highly recommend this book. You’ll learn about the history of the sofa, the flush toilet and the evolution of the bedroom. I love this book!

Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior, 1620-1920 by Peter Thorton – Peter Thornton (who died in 2007) was a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum from the mid-50s to 1984. In 1984, he became director of the Sloane Museum in London. His books on the decorative arts are always easy to read and extremely thorough. He is one of my favorite dec. arts historians. Unfortunately, many of his books are out of print. You can get used copies of some of his books through Amazon.

The Abrams Guide to Period Styles for Interiors by Judith Gura – If you want to read more about the styles that I’ve mentioned above, this book is a good guide to help you distinguish your Rococo from your Regency!

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diy project!
turn louis xvi-style legs into candlesticks!

materials needed
-pair of louis xvi-style legs ($19.99 ea.) – i got the tip for van dyke’s from grace’s twitter call-out! go twitter!
-wood boring spade drill bit (i used a 3/4″ size)
-drill
-sandpaper
-primer
-paint and brush

The is a simple project aimed to bring a little Louis glamour into your home! Although these are not exactly Louis XVI-style legs, they worked for me (and the price was right)! Using a wood boring drill bit, you drill a hole into the bottom of each leg. To finish up, you just lightly sand, prime and paint! (I stuck with basic white, but I think they would look pretty awesome painted in a bright punchy color!) Stick two candles into the holes you’ve drilled and you’re good to go!

candleproject1
unfinished table/chair legs

candleproject21
the centerpoint of the legs was already marked, which made drilling easy.

candleproject3
hole drilled and candlesticks primed!

candleproject41
all they need were two coats of glossy white paint!

candleproject5
et voilà!

Sarah Jones

this is so informative. I love all Louis chairs. Good to know more about them. I want to check out some of these books. Thanks for the research!

Petra

I have a few pieces of the Louis XV-era at home, but always had a bit of a problem separating the different eras from eachother. so I really thank you for this tutorial!

JDV

Fabulous! As a result of your article I can with some degree of confidence say that the chairs I have are Rococo style, they are old enough to be antiques but I doubt they’re genuine. I was going to give them away (my mother tore them down to their bare frames but I do have some thick metal coils for the seats) but now I might have to find out if they’re worth saving and ultimately restoring.

Rebekah

dear design * sponge:

I must say love you. I love you and all of your editors. And I love french decorative history and french chairs. And I love the diy project.

I must ask… what other blog could produce such awesomeness?

Sincerely,
Rebekah

Angela

You are awesome….this post made me smile as I just spent 3 hrs last weekend trying to explain these same differences. :-) I should just send her to your blog from now on.

Georgia

Great post, thank you! I’ve always had a hard time figuring out which chair was which! Now I know my favorite is the Louis XV, the rococo one…beautiful!

Eugénie

Great post ! I alreaday knew all about louis chairs, cause my grand mother’s dining room is Louis XIII and living room Louis XV. When I was a little with my brother Baptiste she readed us histories in the bergère in our room.
Louis chairs are great part of our History (of decorative arts and in general) and my little history. Thanks !

Tara

This was very informative. Seriously. Now I think I am beginning to understand the differences…en fin!

Lissa

Thank you so, so much for this — the post is informative, the photographs are beautiful, and I finally understand that the style I need to seek out to make my flat everything I want it to be is Rococo. :)

amya

I love that everyone is so into the Rococo! Maybe I’ll have to do a more in-depth post on Rococo! Fun!
-Amy Azzarito

mjwalrus

THis is my third post here, and my second thanking the writer for a wonderful design history article.

Thanks for the history, beautiful images and diy tutorial. It gives us crafters a bit of perspective when it’s time to rip up, paint up, or generally rebuild old pieces.

Sometimes special pieces should be treated to show off their historical value. These posts give us MUCH NEEDED historical perspective on these certain pieces. Keep em coming!

hrhkat

very very fun post! I would love it if you did a post on mod furniture…or the difference between art deco and art nouveau…

or the history and introduction of chinese/japanese furniture to the west…all those beautifully painted cabinets and chests…

Laurapoet

Wonderful post. I had no idea there were so many differences! I agree w/ hrhkat, I think a post on modern furniture would be great! My compliments!

larae

thank you for sharing! so interesting and informative! what’s next? :) looking forward~

Leslie

Your site is fantastic. So generous with historical information and visual delight. MORE PLEASE.

Rachael Lachel

My grandmother is an artist and we have talked about the “museum of chairs” for years. It’s essential to know your chair history, so I proclaim this the best post thus far. That’s right, take a break and get some gelato!

May

Thank you very much for your sharing. I love French furniture and your historic information added depth to my knowledge of the furniture. It would be a great bonus if you can share where to find/buy affordable French furniture nowadays.

Lianne

Even though this is an old post, amazing! I love all of the history and the different terms, now I will never mess them up again!

Merepeka Simpson

How clever to educate the multitudes, I love your page and look forward to more. I googled Louis chairs and came up with this site and others, after seeing Louis chairs in a movie with my children, I wanted to show them more. How inspiring.

elegance

Wearing something just for the sake of wearing it ultimately goes against the principles of fashion. Underneath its modern exterior, there lies an ancient Singapore with its gorgeous monuments, excellent temples shrines and beautiful colonial buildings. And it seems that the bags they have are never big enough.

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