The desire for more comfortable living provided an ideal climate for a new look in furniture design and a move away from the restraints of classicism and into the realms of fantasy.
Furniture 1680-1760 Regence to Rococo
The new style had its origins in the refurbishment of the Palais Royal in Paris under Philippe, duc d’Orleans, regent to Louis XV from 1715 to 1723. Architect Gilles-Marie Oppenord introduced a look that was, essentially, curvaceous – a mass of swirling lines incorporating carvings of foliage and flowers in arrangements that were fanciful and deliberately asymmetrical.
A cohesive, unified design was key: chairs were upholstered in elegant silks, satins, and damasks that matched drapery; carved ornament on the furniture echoed motifs in wall panelling and doors; and colours were light and subtle, reflected in elaborately carved gilt-framed mirrors. Much of the design was influenced by women, whose desires to entertain at leisure inspired the creation of the drawing room, or salon. This is evident in the “feminine look” of the period.
Furniture 1680-1760 Louis XV
The fashion for asymmetry was most extravagant during the reign of Louis XV (1715-74). Natural motifs – shells, flowers, and husks – were used in abundance, alongside arabesques, C-scrolls, and s-scrolls, in a bid to create the desired effect. This signalled the arrival of the genre pittoresque, later named the Rococo style. A derivation of the phrase rocaille coquille (rock and shell), the term refers to the rockwork and grotto-like features that became synonymous with the look.
Furniture 1680-1760 Fashionable forms
Furniture tended to be smaller and more elegant than under Louis XIV, making maximum use of the curve motif in pieces such as tables and commodes with serpentine edges, chairs with undulating top rails, and the ubiquitous S-shaped cabriole leg. The prestigious marble-topped commode existed in a variety of styles, a favourite being the two- drawer version designed by Charles Cressent. The fauteuil – an upholstered, open-sided armchair – exemplified the desire for greater comfort, the frame adapted to accommodate fashionable hooped skirts. Close relations were the fully upholstered bergere and the fully upholstered sofa, or settee.
The new salons included tea tables, games tables, and sewing tables. Folded away at the edge of the room, such pieces were opened up as the need arose. Writing tables – primarily housed in the bedroom – were also popular. In addition to the men’s bureau plat, largely unchanged from Baroque forms, there were now smaller, more elegant writing desks for ladies.
Furniture 1680-1760 A taste for the exotic
Designs were executed in a range of techniques, and exotic woods such as amaranth, purplewood, and kingwood were used to create intricate marquetry inlays that became the height of fashion. Many pieces were finished with ormolu mounts; ostensibly applied to protect vulnerable corners, these were nevertheless exquisite in design.
In France a process for imitating – more economically – Chinese lacquerwork was developed by Martin Freres and called vernis Martin. In Venice lacca povera (poor man’s lacquer) had the same effect. The technique involved pasting coloured images on to furniture and applying several coats of varnish to achieve a glossy finish. In England Thomas Chippendale often used Chinese elements in his furniture designs.
A fashion for carved and painted wood was common in regions of Italy and Scandinavia, where native woods such as pine, beech, and lime were soft and, therefore, particularly suited to intricate carving. Where the wood was inferior in quality, pieces were also covered in gesso and gilt.
Masters of the style
Most of the finest Rococo pieces originated in France – Charles Cressent’s two-drawer commode became a seminal design of the period, for example. Francois Cuvillies did much to introduce the style to Germany, creating exemplary interiors at the Munich Residenz for the Elector of Bavaria. In Italy the work of Pietro Piffetti epitomized the Rococo style, with intricate marquetry in exotic woods, ivory, and mother-of-pearl.
From walnut to mahogany
The high-Rococo style that developed in France spread to much of Europe, but in some regions the flamboyance was simply too much. Instead, designers took their lead from developments in the Low Countries and England, where a more restrained version of the style prevailed.
An emphasis on wood
At the beginning of the 18th century walnut was the wood of choice throughout much of Europe.
It was a good, hard, indigenous wood, and it was suitable for carving. It grew rich in colour over time and had exciting figuring – particularly when selected with burrs or from root timbers. For these reasons, there was a tendency to rely on the wood itself for ornament. Although techniques such as marquetry and lacquerwork existed, these were an exception to the rule and prohibitively expensive to all but the wealthiest of patrons.
From 1725 onwards mahogany began to take the place of walnut, primarily in England, and later across the rest of Europe. Mahogany found favour in the early American colonies, though it was also common to find regional pieces produced in native timbers such as maple in New England, cherry in Connecticut, and walnut in the southern states.
The increased use of mahogany coincided with a blight on walnut trees in Europe, which made their wood rare and expensive, and the removal of import taxes in the 1730s, which significantly reduced the cost of importing mahogany from the West Indies. Because mahogany is a harder wood than walnut, it was a better choice for carving and piercing with intricate decoration. Its darker colour married well with gold, silver, or bronze ornament, and it was not long before the wood became associated with the more elaborate styles of french Rococo, Palladian, and Chippendale furniture.
Style and ornament
although the Rococo style elsewhere was more restrained than in french and Italian furniture, concessions were made, not least the cabriole leg, less exaggerated bombe forms, and broken or arched pediments. Qrnament was often limited to a single shell motif on the knee of a cabriole leg or a claw-and-ball foot. The occasional piece may also have been painted in pastel colours and gilt. Although marquetry was not as fashionable in England, it was still popular in the Low Countries, where designers created realistic floral displays.
In England, inlaid detail took the form of elegant feather- or crossbanding.
The first quarter of the century saw the emergence of the style referred to as Queen Anne. Its most recognizable form was the Queen Anne chair with its rounded back, vase-shaped back splat, and cabriole legs. This design was produced widely in England, the Low Countries, and the American colonies. The chair was most commonly made from solid walnut or oak with a walnut veneer.
Another form particular to these regions, and Germany, during the first half of the 1700s was the bureau cabinet – a two-door cupboard above a chest of drawers. Sometimes the cupboard doors were glazed for displaying ceramics. Some versions also housed a writing surface, a form known as a secretaire cabinet. A close relation, the chest-on- chest, was an architectural piece, often seen with a pediment and fluted pilasters.
Almost exclusive to the early American colonies was the combination of highboy and lowboy, which rivalled the prestige of the commode in France. Designed en suite for the bedroom, each had a similar form and ornament. With its many drawers, the highboy served as an essential storage piece, while the lowboy functioned both as a dressing table and a writing table.
As in France, the more sociable climate gave rise to the creation of a number of smaller pieces of furniture.
These were particularly suited to entertaining and included tea tables, which sometimes took the form of a round tilt-top table on a tripod base, and card tables, which satisfied an increasing fascination with gambling.
A touch of flair
Despite the prevailing climate of restraint, Thomas Chippendale’s designs stand out as having more exuberance. In his publication The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1754), he presented designs for a host of furniture forms elaborately decorated in different styles. Alongside drawings for richly ornamented French pieces with scrolling ribbons and foliage, Chippendale also offered Chinese-inspired designs featuring pagoda surmounts, fretwork galleries, and bamboo-effect carving, as well as Gothic-inspired designs incorporating pointed arches and quatrefoils.
From the 1720s a style emerged in England that rejected the asymmetrical frivolity of contemporary French design. It was inspired by, and takes its name from, the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose own buildings were influenced by the mathematical precision of ancient Classical architecture.
The result was a formal style based on symmetry and geometric forms. Such buildings were furnished with massive furniture, often embellished with pediments, pilasters, and fielded panels.
Some designers made the occasional concession to the Rococo style by decorating pieces ornately with swirling ribbons and shell motifs, but the overall look remained symmetrical.
A leading exponent of the style was William Kent, who designed Holkham Hall in Norfolk.