For nearly two centuries, the four Louis’s ruled the courts of France and the worlds of fashion and décor. During his respective reign, each king cultivated a signature style of furnishings and decorative arts reflecting the ever-changing tastes and politics that defined his time.
Ruled 1610 – 1643
It was a tumultuous period that produced the scheming Cardinal Richelieu and The Three Musketeers. France was moving against its neighbors to become the dominant force in Europe. From the writings of Descartes to the brushstrokes of Poussin, philosophy and art became part of the national conversation.
Taking its cue from the fading Mannerist style, Louis XIII furniture was sturdy and heavy compared to what was to come. The all-important cabinet was modified with a fall front. Armoires were often decorated with geometric moldings and carved swags like those from Flanders. Chairs were boxy with elaborately turned legs and stretchers. French designers were moving away from the Italian Renaissance to establish a style of their own.
Ruled 1643 – 1715
To keep his thumb on the treacherous aristocracy, Louis XIV built the magnificent palace at Versailles and forced his entire court to live there with him. His power was absolute and extended to every corner and nuance of French life, from manners to fashion. Aided by his chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis set out to glorify France through the arts.
Versailles became the centerpiece of Louis XIV’s strategy to make France the center of the cultural universe. Led by artist, Charles Le Brun, Paris furniture makers created pieces that were sumptuous, symmetrical and grandly scaled. Curves were modest, straight lines prominent, and layered details reigned supreme. Armchairs were more like thrones with elaborate carvings and rich upholstery. Because the furniture was so costly, very few pieces were produced.
Ruled 1715 – 1774
For this Louis, the pursuit of power gave way to the pursuit of pleasure. He removed the court from Versailles to Paris, allowing his nobles to live in their own sumptuous townhouses. Led by Louis’ celebrated mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame de Barry, society retreated to the salon where intimately sized rooms called for comfort and less formality. The smooth, sinuous and sometimes playful, Rococo style was born.
The forms were fluid, with chairs, tables and the popular commode chests of the period set apart by the signature “S” shaped cabriole leg. Flowers became a popular motif, carved into crest rails, aprons and the knees of cabriole legs. Chairs became smaller and springs were added, satisfying the salon society’s craving for comfort. Colors were lighter, adding to the charm of what some consider the most approachable period in French furniture design.
Ruled 1774 – 1792
After years spent in gossipy salons, society was ready to venture beyond the confines of the Paris court. Trips to ancient ruins became all the rage and led to a rediscovery and appreciation for classical motifs. It was the dawning of the Enlightenment when the writings of Rousseau and reasoning overcame the frivolity and emotion of the past.
Mirroring the philosophies of the day, the Louis XVI style emphasized straight lines, geometric forms and classically inspired, decorative motifs. Chair and settee backs evolved into controlled arcs, leaving behind the voluptuous curves of Rococo period. Chair and table legs were tapered and fluted in the style of a Roman column. Greek keys and palmettes replaced carved flowers on crests and aprons. It was, for many, the golden age of cabinet making.