Gothic Furniture (1200 – 1425)
The great cathedrals of the Gothic period were expressions of a new affluence but their interiors contained simple functional, oak furniture. Late in the Gothic period, carved decoration echoing the arched shapes of Gothic architecture appeared.
All houses in the Middle Ages were damp and furniture needed to be raised off the ground to prevent rotting. For this reason, chests from the 12th century onward often had legs.
A few new forms of furniture appeared. these included single and double-tiered cupboards and sideboards with a small storage area on tall legs and a shelf beneath.
By the 15th century, the Low Countries were becoming prosperous through trade and merchants’ homes there became better furnished. “Flanders chests”, decorated with a stylised motif representing folded linen, became popular.
Renaissance Furniture (1425 – 1580)
The Renaissance in Italy saw the introduction of elaborately decorated chests, rich marquetry, elaborate carving and the use of walnut in place of oak. Florence was famous for marriage chests, painted with romantic scenes, were produced. Portable folding chairs with leather or tapestry seats and chairs with solid, carved backs and solid panels instead of legs were introduced.
During the early Renaissance period, the French courts employed Italian artists who brought Italian furniture designs, but with somewhat richer decoration.
Feather beds and pillows came into use. In the colder, northern countries, beds were surmounted by a canopy hung from the ceiling
In the 15th century, the southern German cities of Ausberg and Nuremburg became famous for the exuberance and virtuosity of their carved and inlaid cabinets. The earliest cabinets were placed on tables; later, they were made with stands.
Did you know?
The earliest chests were made by hollowing out tree trunks; and, so, were called “trunks”.
Baroque Furniture (1580 – 1700)
Their territorial acquisitions in the New World brought wealth to Spain and Portugal. Rich Spanish furniture was often inlaid with silver and exotic woods, such as mahogany and ebony, were used. Cabinets were made with drop fronts which rested on slides. The exteriors of these cabinets were often plain but the interiors were highly ornamented with Moorish designs in silver.
Early 17th century furniture continued to follow Renaissance forms but with greater delicacy and an increased use of ebony and tortoiseshell veneers instead of carving.
Late in the Baroque period new forms came into fashion, including scroll-shaped and spiral legs on chairs and tables, high backs on chairs and wardrobes and chests of drawers with curved fronts. Cane was sometimes used instead of upholstery on chair seats and backs.
Rococco & Louis XIV Furniture (1660 – 1715)
The reign of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) is noted for the splendour of the Royal Courts. Furniture included large chairs with carved, gilded scrolls and covered with velvet or silk embroidered with gold or silver thread. Side tables with costly marble tops supported by carved “pieds de table” became popular.
Cabinets, cupboards and desks of the Louis XIV period are distinguished by their opulence and size. The use of metal and tortoiseshell marquetry, known as “boulle”, became widespread in the 1680s. It is found on large cabinets (“armoures”) and bureaux. Cabinets were made of ebony inlaid with pietre dure panels framed in gilt bronze. Others were made in marquetry, often with gilt wood supports. Matching sets, called “triads”) consisting of a table, two candlestands and a framed mirror, were extremely popular.
Late in Louis XIV’s reign, Andre-Charles Boulle, produced two new designs which were to prove extremely popular: his “bureau plat” (writing desk) was large, with four legs and three drawers and his “commode” was a finely ornamented chest of drawers intended to be the focal point of a room. Both designs were originally decorated with boulle marquetry, but wood veneers soon be the standard.
Rococo, which began in France in the reign of Louis XIV, flourished during the reign of Louis XV. Rococo furniture was characterised by complex forms that curved in every direction, fanciful patterns inlaid on layers of veneer, ormolu outlining edges and drawer fronts and animal-form legs.
Did you know?
Tortoiseshell is, in fact, made from the shell of turtles – most often the Hawkesbill turtle found in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of Brazil. It has been used on furniture and small decorative items since Roman times.
Regence & Louis XV Furniture (1715 – 1750)
France was ruled by a Regent from the death of Louis XIV until Louis XV reached his legal majority in 1723. During this period, the Regence, there was heaviness and ornateness of the furniture of the previous period. Designs became more graceful and decoration was simplified.
During the reign of Louis XV, this trend continued, with designs becoming more curved rather than angular and curvilinear carved motifs, such as plants and shells, became popular. From the 1740s, flower marquetry became popular.
Cabinets were often made with a pine carcase and then veneered with exotic wood in geometric patterns.
As well as the “bureau plat”, introduced late in the Louis XIV period, other writing desks, such as the secretaire (with a fall-front), cylinder-top desk and small writing tables, became popular.
The fauteuil (armchair), with its scrolled back and seat and curved arms and legs, and the bergere (easychair) also became popular in this period.
Neo-classical Furniture (Empire & Louis XVI) (1770 – 1830)
Neo-classical furniture was a reaction to the ornateness of the Rococo period. In France, early neo-classical furniture is called Louis XVI although it began before his reign (1774 to 1793).
The shapes used in Louis XVI furniture were simple and geometric with rectangular, round or oval tables on straight, tapering legs. Doric, Ionian, Corinthian mouldings, drapery and flowers were used for decoration.
At first, the change was gradual. For example, seats might retain their heart-shaped rococo back but be supported by straight, tapered legs, or the body of a commode might be rectilinear but the legs curved. By about 1770, however, the rococo style had been completely supplanted by the neo-classical.
Plain veneers also gradually replaced the marquetry of the previous period although panels of pietre dure or boulle marquetry (often taken from older pieces) or Sevres porcelain plaques were often applied to cabinets.
With the rise of Napoleon, the neo-classical style spread throughout Europe, as Empire in France, Regency in England and Biedermeier in Germany. The essential simplicity of form and classical decoration of the Louis XVI period remained but furniture was made on a grander, more monumental scale.