The 18th century was a tumultuous time in France, reflected in revolutionary shifts in furniture design. The heavy baroque chairs of Louis XIV and the more delicate rococo style of Louis XV were replaced by a sophisticated new look dubbed neoclassical, which covered the fateful era of Louis XVI, from about 1774 to 1792. If you covet the armchairs that found favor with Marie Antoinette, a few simple distinctions will ensure that the correct Louis graces your dining room.
Great Digs and Good Bones
History and ruins had an outsize influence on the court furnishings of the last Louis. During his reign, archaeologists discovered the lost city of Pompei with its furniture nearly intact. At the same time, Greek classical ruins were being excavated, and the clean lines, fluted columns and regal ornamentation of the Roman and Greek empires became all the rage in French society. From squarish, masculine baroque and curvy, delicate rococo, the cabinetmakers and menuisiers -- the carpenters who specialized in chairs -- turned to symmetrical, straight lines, legs fluted like Greek columns, and a lighter, more graceful shape. The new style was dubbed neoclassical. A Louis XVI armchair is itself a classic design that readily adapts to contemporary decor in a dining room, boudoir or salon.
The armchair is known as a fauteuil, a wood chair with upholstered seat, seat back and manchettes -- small padded sections on the arms. Wood may be gilded or exposed, and it is often carved with very specific motifs. Baroque court chairs featured stretchers separating the legs, gilding and tortoiseshell patterns on wood, and carved gargoyles, griffins, lions' heads and paws. Rococo retained the gilding with very feminine and exotic carving and S-curved cabriole legs. But Louis XVI chairs let the beauty of the expensive hardwoods shine through. One favored wood was mahogany, a prized import from the New World. Upholstered chair backs are medallion-shaped or square, and the straight legs are tapered, almost always fluted, sometimes topped by carved pilasters. The style is never fussy; chairs are lithe, refined and ornamented with plenty of carved decoration on the arms, encircling the medallion or framing the square back, edging the seat and capping the fluted legs.
Only rich people could afford bespoke, hand-carved furniture in prerevolutionary France, but the hostile, unbridgeable gap between rich and poor inspired greater simplicity of ornamentation. Design may have been toned down in a doomed attempt at self-preservation, but it still represented an ostentatious display of wealth and cosmopolitan tastes. The columns, pilasters, lyres and wreaths were a nod to ancient Greece. Garlands, draped folds, rosettes, urns and explosions of flowers conjured the Roman empire and appealed to French fancy. Tiny details differentiate some of the motifs. The acanthus leaf was popular during the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, but, in Louis XVI furniture, the leaves tend to face sedately in one direction. The lobes and veins are not as deeply cut or curled as their predecessors, although every lobe is separated and the slightly rounded edges are serrated.
When you want the look but not the expense or maintenance of an original, conjure Louis' ghost with Philippe Starck's iconic molded polycarbonate knock-off. Starck designed a Louis XVI "ghost chair" that mimics the unmistakable shape of the neoclassical original. The chairs are entirely transparent, slipping easily into a home office, a dining room with a sleek glass table or a breakfast nook with a Saarinen round or oval table. Ghost chairs are a godsend in small spaces with their big style, hint of history, and disappearing outlines. And, unlike the precious antiques, weather-resistant Louis XVI ghost chairs are stackable.