Anatomy of a Style: Louis XV
Historical Perspective: The eighteenth century was the time of the enlightenment and the golden age of French furniture. From 1715 to 1789, the primary objective behind furniture design changed from function and symmetry to comfort and style. The movement began in the Regence period during the reign of Louis XIV. After his death, his influence of artistic expression lived on. The people of France bathed in their new artistic freedom, welcoming fresh ideas into home decoration. The cabinet makers, joiners and carvers were no longer seen as just craftsmen, but skilled artists. Architects, designers and artisans collaborated to create beautiful pieces to match the aesthetics of the sophisticated interiors. These artisans paved the way for a new era of interior design, ultimately leading the Regence style into what would be known as Rococo. At this time Louis XV became king. As a mere child of five years old, his priorities reflected his young age. Throughout his reign, he was more concerned with physical pleasures than running state affairs. Influenced by the “Well-loved” King, elite members of the French society sought out physical leisure, which created a demand for comfortable furnishings. Rococo’s theme was “the quest for greater comfort and informality”. Decoration began to dictate form. Although artistic freedom was encouraged, the governing guilds strict regulations were still in place. It allowed only certified carpenters and upholsterers to work together to create furniture. Eventually, Rococo made its way from Paris to Britain and later to other European countries.
Design & Influences: The Louis XV style was largely influenced by his predecessor, Louis XIV, whose style was Regence. The overall theme that transitioned Regence to Rococo was the movement from formal, geometric architecture to natural curvilinear designs. The chair’s shoulder boards no longer had prominent and defined angles, but was rather made delicately rounded. The back sat at a slight reclining angle and was attached directly to the seat without a space in between. The armrests, decorated with manchettes, sat lower and sloped inward due to the changes in women’s fashion. They were connected continuously to the chair’s back and seat rail. The stretchers of the chair were removed to accentuate the curve of the legs. The straight lines and sharp angles of the Regence style were replaced by natural S and C shaped curves. The chair was no longer composed of separate entities, but rather blended into one another through fluidly. It’s feet curled like a scroll and the legs were mounted at an angle. The most prominent difference however, was the chair’s mouldings and high relief carvings. The Rococo style was evident from its use of asymmetrical marquetry. The decorative ornaments were of twirling leaves, garlands of fruit, shells with foliage, blossoms, sprays, tendrils, reeds, branches of palm, laurel and rocks. Overall, the chairs reflected Rococo’s style of great delicacy and refinement.
Materials: The Louis XV chair-frames were typically made of beech, walnut or cherry wood. Cherry wood had a fine grain which was especially good for carving. It was usually painted with gold leaf. The upholstered textile was commonly buttoned and trimmed with fringes, braids and tassels. The frames were often made of gilded or painted beech. Joints were masked by the use of line and sculptured ornaments such as shells and rocks. The word Rococo means rocaille, pebble, which refers to the the shell covered rock work that was used to decorate artificial grottoes.
Purpose: The Rococo style transformed furniture design into a creative artform. Because of this, carpenters designed the furniture to complement its surrounding space with a particular focus on comfort and style. In 1715, women’s fashion standards began to change. Slim waists compressed by corsets and large hoop skirts spilling outward became popular. To accommodate the new style, the chair’s armrests moved lower and angled inward. Between 1725-1730, Drop-In chairs were invented. They allowed for removeable upholsteries which made it more convenient to change the sets from season to season. Instead of having two sets of chairs, people were able to buy individual upholsteries and switch them out as they pleased. Many styles included overstuffed cushions for maximum comfort which removed the stiff demeanor of the court.