Today it seems astonishing that a climate in which the guillotine was the cutting-edge technology and fashionable heads were paraded through the streets on pikes could also produce elegant furniture that’s now sought-after for its grace and refinement. But the Directoire style—so named for the council of Revolutionary directeurs that governed France from 1795 to 1799—did just that. The style builds on the Louis XVI fashions that preceded it and presages the Empire tastes of the Napoleonic era to come. The Directoire style draws heavily on Grecian and Roman forms, reflecting a mania for all things republican.
Chairs have curving, klismos-esque shapes, with curved backs and gently tapering legs, while symbols carry the whiff of revolutionary fervor: clasped hands represent fraternité, those aforementioned pikes imply the power of man, and triangles with eyes in the centers—like those you can still see on one-dollar bills—recall the preeminence of raison heralded by Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau.
Perhaps the most iconic piece of furniture of the era is the recamier, immortalized by the artist (and Robespierre groupie) Jacques Louis David in his portrait of French socialite Juliette Récamier. In it, Récamier —low born, but at the pinnacle of Parisian society as the wife of the financier who backed Napoleon—reclines barefoot on an austere daybed with scrolling ends and turned legs that taper into pencil-thin points, all in a setting right out of Pompeian fresco. The painting cemented the open couch as an instant classic, since interpreted by everyone from Jean-Michel Frank to Marc Newson.
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