French style is known for being fashionable and stylish, and it’s a reputation that has endured for centuries. Indeed, France has prevailed as the tastemaker in Europe and around the world, leading the way in luxury design and decorative arts.
So let’s take a look at some of the highlights of French style over the past 400 years. Incorporating antique elements and vintage pieces from these styles will certainly add a little je ne sais quoi to a room.
1. Baroque (1638—1715)
We begin with Baroque and what better place to start than the glittering and extravagant Palace of Versailles just outside of Paris. Versailles is a shining example of Baroque French style.
A classical vocabulary underlies Baroque interiors and architecture, which are layered with three-dimensional decoration, sculptural forms, and rich materials for added drama and illusion. Baroque buildings, artworks, and interiors are conceived with an emotional message to elicit awe from viewers. In Italy, the message conveyed the power of the church, with the purpose of enticing Italians back into Catholicism. In Versailles, the message conveyed the power of Louis XIV (1643-1715) with the purpose of glorifying France and the name of Louis the Great, and establishing absolute monarchical rule. It was, as such, propaganda. Dazzling, magnificent, glistening propaganda.
Louis XIV commissioned architect Louis Le Vau, painter and designer Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre to transform a modest hunting lodge into the palace we know today. Le Brun designed the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) with windows along one side and mirrors on the other to reflect the garden vistas and distant views. Painted canvases celebrating Louis XIV covered the vaulted ceiling while marble covered the walls; solid silver furniture, sculptures, and chandeliers provided three-dimensional decoration throughout.
The king was a great patron of the arts, and stimulated an economic revolution by ordering all goods be made in France, establishing the nation’s position as the great tastemaker of Europe. In 1666 Louis XIV awarded André Charles Boulle the title of master cabinetmaker. Boulle—a visionary of veneered furniture and gilt-bronze sculpture—designed some of the most desired furniture of the era.
2. Rococo (1715—1774)
Louis XIV died in 1715 and passed the royal torch to his great-grandson Louis XV, just five years of age at the time. Louis XV, otherwise known as Louis the Beloved, did away with the rigid and formal court life at Versailles, allowing courtiers to move back to Paris where urban and cultural life soon flourished.
In Paris, the fashionable elite led a more private life and embraced a new social and domestic lifestyle that delighted in the pleasure of beauty, comfort, and seclusion. Decorative objects gave meaning to a space, and the highly ornate Rococo style emerged. Lavish rooms were visually rich and filled with furniture, such as the chaise longue, which was designed for comfort and ideal for posing and reposing.
Interiors had curved and rounded forms. Spaces had decorative carved wood paneling, known as boiserie, as a defining feature. Ceilings and walls were elaborately decorated with asymmetrical and lacy surface designs. While Rococo was just as intricate as Baroque, its interiors were more delicate, feminine, and light. It placed an emphasis on line and linearity, revealing the influence of Japanese and Chinese decorative arts.
Of course the French needed fancy new furniture for their fashionable new lifestyle. Designers experimented with materials and techniques and created new types of furniture, such as this bonheur-du-jour (small writing desk), to facilitate distinct modes of activity. Attributed to Martin Carlin, this desk was made popular by Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry. Its oak frame is mounted with Sèvres plaques painted with delicate floral ornaments. It has a hinged writing surface, and compartments for an inkwell, sponge trough, and sand box.
3. Empire (1800—1815)
Enter Napoleon Bonaparte on his fine steed. The Empire (or Neoclassical) style emerged during the Napoleonic era and it saw the return of a more disciplined artistic and decorative style based on refined classicism. And, just like Louis XIV who used art for status and power, so too did Napoleon. Indeed, the emperor employed this French style as propaganda to strengthen his image and to revive the skills of luxury French trades that had been hard hit by the Revolution.
Napoleon’s interiors reflected his political power with form and decoration derived from classicism. Designers looked to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration, incorporating wall and cabinet paintings like those in Pompeii, and symbols and motifs such as lions and eagles to suggest grandeur and power.
Rooms also expressed Napoleon’s military might with many spaces decked out with theatrically-draped fabric to recall the war tents of his campaigns. Josephine’s bedroom at Malmaison had rich imagery to fit the stature of the emperor’s wife with motifs, red and gold (the colors of power, victory, and abundance) and Empire-style furniture.
Empire furniture borrowed forms and decoration from both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, and like the interiors, expressed Napoleon’s divinity as a ruler. This armchair, designed by Jacob Frères, was part of a suite for Napoleon’s council chamber. It had red wool fabric to suggest the look and feel of the leader’s uniform, and a throne-like shape that was masculine in stature. Napoleon’s brother actually brought this chair to America in 1816 for his luxurious estate in New Jersey. It’s migration from France to America helped to spread the Empire style to the States. President James Munro even used a similar chair in the White House.
4. Art Nouveau (1880s—1910s)
Remember the anxiety of Y2K? Well similar sentiment existed one hundred years earlier as the 19th century drew to a close. Responding to the angst of change, artists and designers sought to express a new art for a new age—hence the name Art Nouveau. This desire for renewal spurred a movement that looked to a past era—particularly Rococo—to design for a new era, creating a recognizable French style in the process.
The aesthetic of French style Art Nouveau reflected the feelings of flux as well as recent discoveries (such as science, nature, and the psyche) and technological advances (including flight, electricity, and lithography) in an attempt to transcend them. Art Nouveau forms are characterized by asymmetry, rhythm, and a dynamic sense of movement as if in a state of change.
Art Nouveau also came with an aspiration to increase the quality and craftsmanship of French style decorative arts, in order to elevate public taste. It was a “total style,” applied to architecture, visual arts, and furniture, and the refined and organic lines expressed a grace, elegance, and sensibility that renewed the French spirit of design.
And as le style de la journée during the Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau can be seen in the interiors of many cafes and restaurants that hail from that era, including Le Bistrot du Peintre.
5. Art Deco (1920—1939)
That brings us to the glitz and glamor Art Deco. As the government sought to stimulate the economy after World War I, it encouraged the revival of the French luxury goods market to establish France, once again, as the arbiter of taste and fashion. Artists, designers, and merchandisers showcased the chic and elegant décor at the 1925 Paris Exposition and promoted the pleasure of consumption.
Art Deco had an emphasis on surface and form. The superficiality of the style is reflected in attention to surface decoration. Craftsmen borrowed classical forms, such as vases; Japanese techniques, like lacquer; and exotic woods from colonial countries; and combined them with round sweeping forms. Art Deco was a luxurious world with a sense of femininity and desire—much like the perception of consumption.
Designers also incorporated flat, stylized, and geometric patterns and surface relief that appeared frozen in place. These too borrowed from Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greek (just like the Empire style), as well as embodying forms of the new electrical and mechanical age—sunbursts, chevrons, zigzags, fountains.
Admittedly, L’Hôtel du Collectionneur was designed in 2004. However, it showcases the glamor of Art Deco with strong geometric forms, chevron-patterned marble floors, gold bas-reliefs, and stunning chandeliers. Louis XIV would certainly be proud.
There’s no denying the French have style in spades. When it comes to incorporating antique and vintage pieces in today’s home, be as discerning as the French. Select pieces you love that contribute to the look and feel of a home, and take French designer Coco Chanel’s words to heart: “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Voilà, c’est tout.