Given the recent, devastating events in France, I am reminded how much the design world has inherited from the French, and how it has survived the test of time, trends and even periods of bad design. Any designer worth his/her salt would be suspect if he or she did not admit to harboring at least a soupçon of Francophile yearnings. Personally, I owe a good deal to the French sensibility, which has influenced the artistic direction of my career, and, like many great chefs who proclaim that the fundamentals of great cooking are rooted in French culinary technique, countless designers will refer to the French sense of proportion, finesse and refinement as fundamental to their approach to design.Throughout history, the French have influenced every popular style in design. Reflecting all the way back to the 13th century, one of the most exquisite examples of Gothic architecture can be seen in Chartres Cathedral. Its rose windows have a delicacy and depth of richness far exceeding any other example in Europe at that time.
As medieval Europe yielded to the Renaissance, Catherine de Medici, Queen of France during the mid-16th century, had the good taste to import the finest of Italian painters, sculptors, masons and woodworkers, changing the face of Paris and dotting the Loire Valley and French countryside with incomparable chateaux of extraordinary grace. Furnishings, though still slim pickings in these sparsely furnished palaces, were highly sculpted, sporting table legs carved with satyrs and nymphs. Hardly delicate in heavy oak and walnut, the cabinets, chairs and cupboards still achieved an elevated refinement in carving.
By Louis XIII’s reign during the early 17th century, the French court was not only the leading style setter, but also the clever adapter of all styles Flemish and Dutch. Spiral-carved legs and turnings of all manner, shape and form entered the French lexicon with, of course, France’s signature lightness and refined proportions.
The brilliance of Louis XIV cannot be underestimated. Continuing his father’s work of establishing a feudal system mired in the recalcitrant behavior of pugilistic nobles, Louis XIV oversaw not only three major wars but three major building campaigns for his lavish palace of Versailles. By patronizing the greatest architects, painters, sculptors, landscape designers, textile manufacturers and artisans of his period, he created the most powerfully dazzling palace of his time. At the same time, his patronage built industries which then supplied the rest of Europe with exquisite French products and a boon to the economy.
And as a lasting legacy of style and its power to influence, Louis demanded the court move with him to Versailles. Under his watchful eye in this isolated environment, his rebellious nobles could hardly launch plots, especially since he fostered a competitive environment of fashion luxury. The nobles, in order not to be shamed at his extraordinary fêtes, were required to outfit themselves in the most opulent clothing and costumes. The embroidered silks and satins were ruinously expensive and, apart from their gambling habits, these competitive nobles depleted their fortunes and weakened their estate holdings by acquiring ever more sumptuous vestments.
Louis XIV used style as a weapon for peace among his nobles and created an enviable industry for the visual arts that has historically been France’s most profitable export.
Louis XIV’s style redefined the Baroque manner with figural sculpture, faces of gods, balusters, animal feet and heads. Gilded bronzes, marble and imported woods were combined with tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and silver in complicated marquetry. Big, bold, dramatic, and, as always, perfectly executed, the French baroque was designed to awe. It succeeded.
Perhaps the most enduring, influential and identifiably French periods are Régence, Louis XV and Louis XVI. The Régence softened the massive carvings typical of Louis XIV style, retreating from reliance on the human or animal figure, and looking toward nature’s forms. Many silver patterns to this day find their origins in this period. Louis XV, great-grandson of Louis XIV, ushered in the very feminine, curvaceous, asymmetrical Rococo period. Nature’s flowers, leaves, sprays and tendrils dominated the fine carvings and gildings. The legs of chairs ended in scrolled feet and the “knees” were embellished with leaf forms. Elaborate curves and bronze ornamentations were applied to the legs of tables, commodes and chairs. Shell shapes and the attenuated Greek acanthus leaf found favor, while scores of exotic woods found placement in complex marquetry. The feminization and delicate proportions of this period are remarkable.
The always popular Louis VXI style took France by storm in the mid-18th century with the excavation of Pompeii. The classical columns and straighter, cleaner lines inspired by the newly unveiled Roman city swept away all curves. Carved rosettes, urns and fluted legs adorned all types of furnishings, while bronzes were simplified down to straight-lined reeding. In our current period of retro-modern influence, the Louis XVI period is the most palatable to designers and architects. Square, oval back chairs with straight, tapered legs, often upholstered in bright shiny leather with nail heads, find their way into stylish interiors today.
With the ascendance of Napoleon’s imperial aspirations, the whole of France adopted and exported the Empire style, fixated on ancient symbols of power such as sphinxes, griffins, laurel wreaths, eagles, stars, bees and, of course, the fleur de lis. Dark ebony and mahogany were the woods of choice, lacquered to a gleaming luster and mounted with classical, gilded bronzes. Maison Jansen, the famous French interior design firm that worked on Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House decorations, adapted and simplified the Empire style with ebonized tables and chests decorated with subtle bronze reeding. Jansen’s 1950s furniture is still considered highly collectible.
The Restoration period at the turn of the 18th century ushered in lighter woods and burls in elmwood and satinwood, with curves that softened the Empire period. This fad for lighter woods coincided with the beginning of the German-Austrian period of Biedermeier, although more graceful in lines. Paralleling Biedermeier was Louis Philippe, which explored a revival of design elements from the Gothic, Renaissance, Louis XIII and Louis XV periods, resulting in a kind of grab-bag of style.
Subsequently, the inimitable French style found its métier in the liquid tendrils of Art Nouveau, the glamour of Art Deco and the edited, restrained, but no less chic period of Art Moderne.
Through the last 400 years, the French sensibility has been a definitive global style, spanning the world of decorative arts and fashion. Adventurous yet edited, audacious yet discerning, French style celebrates quality of execution and fabrication. As I sit writing at my Régence desk, l look past my dining table surrounded by Louis XVI square back chairs, toward my Louis XV armoire, which houses my TV that continues to replay the terrible events. I owe much to France, as do we all in so many ways. Their style endured and their spirit will too. Vive la France!