French Furniture: Three Desks, Three Styles and a Decorative Arts Glossary


French Desks on www.CourtneyPrice.comToday we are going to have a little decorative arts refresher on French Furniture. I thought a history lesson might be more fun and more memorable if we stick to one type of furniture… just to drive home the style differences and history that influenced their design. So today is “desk day”- we will compare three styles- Regency, Louis XV and Louis XVI desks/bureau plats….which come from three consecutive periods of french decorative history.  Many people find it very confusing to distinguish between the Louis styles, (and if you are a designer, that would be a major faux pas) which is nothing that a good story with visuals can’t cure. The broader context of each of these decorative styles will serve as a decorative arts glossary of terms used. Plan on some juicy backstories, decorative elements, creations and characteristics of each time … and a little gossip about the players/shenanigans of each era… nobody ever said French history was boring.

Regency Desk on www.CourtneyPrice.comThis Bureau Plat (writing table) was sold in a Bonhams auction.  

REGENCY, aka REGENCE:  1715-1723  

Philipe d’ Orleans ruled with the young Louis XV until be became of age. He was very interested in the arts and sciences. This was a period of financial panics, speculation and inflation, because Louis XIV had left the treasury bankrupt. Status/rank shifted to elevate the wealthy rather than the previous birthright-only measure.


A reaction against constraint, against all of the Louis XIV structure. Looseness of morals after the king’s death (Louis XIV). Court life became more simple, less formal, more frivolous, romantic, soft. The Regency style is rather hard to define, as it retains certain features of  the Louis XIV style and displays some of the new features of the Louis XV style. Consider it a transitional style.


The lines of the Louis XIV style persist, but lose their rigidity. Symmetry still preserved. The scale of furniture lightened, stretchers began to disappear, lots of marquetry & cross banding, natural wood finishes, exotic woods, and japanning became popular.


Pattern of checks with flowerets, espagnolettes, open work shells, cross-piece cabriole legs, short hinge-pins on furniture, on chairs the elbow rests flared out and set further back to accommodate hoop-petticoats, early Rococo style emerges


Hinge-topped writing desks, grand-father clock, chest of drawers with cross-bow contour


The Wife: Françoise Marie de Bourbon was an illegitimate child of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan (XIV’s “official” mistress), and Louis XIV’s youngest child. Follow me here for a second.  She married the Philippe d’Orléans at age 14 and was mother of 8 of his children including the next Duke of Orléans. What is interesting about this, you ask. Well, her husband, Philipe d’ Orleans, TOOK POWER of the throne, which Louis XIV had  sloppily promised in his will to both Philippe AND XIV’s favorite son- the Duke of Maine (her brother). Phillipe had the will annulled the day after Louis XIV’s death and took the throne.

onto the next style, the next King…

Louis XV desk on www.CourtneyPrice.comThis Bureau Plat was sold in a Bonhams auction

LOUIS XV: 1723-1774


Italian Baroque Style, eastern art, the East India Company imported and created a taste for Natural History, Turkish and Chinese cabinets


Artistically, the era was marked by a softening of Louis XIV’s masculine grandiosity into a gentile, feminine style that came to be known as ROCOCO under Louis XV.  Small scaled where Louis XIV had been grand, intimate where its predecessor had been forbiddingly formal, soft and greyed in colors where it had been vibrant, the Louis XV style is a harmony of flowing lines. Fantasy, asymmetry, deckle-edged contours, an abhorrence of straight lines, Watteau (painter) is one of the main creators of this elegant, original, intensely French style.


Rich marquetry, martin varnish, asymmetrical patterns, beribboned reeds, bill shaped moulding, , the cabriole leg, Chinoiserie , long hinge-pins 


The chaise longue and the bergere (both designed for the comfort of the sitter), Chests of drawers (2 drawers and no cross piece), secretaries, chiffoniers, powdering tables, liseuses, card tables, backgammon tables, and various other original small items of furniture. MAHOGANY comes into use. Cambered legs, legs with scroll-work. Long hinges with pins.


Not the Wife: Madame de Pompadour (the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to her death). A serious influencer of the time, she had the King’s full attention. She eventually subbed in talented temp-mistresses to tend to the passions of the king so she could focus on planning and building chateaux, pavilions and palaces, including the Petit Trianon in Versailles, kick starting the Sevres Porcelain Factory, foreign policy, court affairs, Decorative Arts, etc. Madame de Pompadour was a seriously powerful woman – she could – and did- make or break careers, making quite a few enemies along the way. She was all about pushing the Rococo Style- and the deep rosy pink used during that time became known as Pompadour Pink.
If  Pantone’s Color of the Year had existed back then, Pompadour Pink would have been color of the year every year… if they knew what was good for them.

moving along….

Louis XVI desk on www.CourtneyPrice.comThis Bureau Plat was sold on 1st Dibs

LOUIS XVI: 1774-1793 Neoclassical Period


The discovery of POMPEII and HERCULANEUM (unearthed in 1755) brings Antiquity back into vogue


Eventually, of course, everyone grew tired of those never ending curves and frills. Even before Louis XV died in 1774, French taste was tending back toward the straight line. A return to STRAIGHT LINES and a taste for nature (Trianon, Marie Antoinette), Georges Jacob founds a dynasty of cabinetmakers


Furniture legs went back to being straight and architectural. Decorative motifs were SYMMETRICAL and borrowed from the ancients: egg & dart, laurel and acanthus, lyres, festoons, etc.  Toiles de Jouy, oval backed chairs (often topped with a bowknot). Revival of classical architectural orders. Canted angles, angles with reseats beads, ovolo, flutings, rural attributes, bows of ribbon, caryatids, moulding with conge, fluted legs, spindle shaped fluted legs, gain shaped, peg top legs/feet, Long hinge-pins. Wallpaper was an important feature during this time- prominent borders.


Square shaped chests of drawers, chests of drawers with ressauts, half-moon chests of drawers, chests of drawers/sideboard combo, chests of drawers/dumb-waiter combo, Roll-top desks, secretaire/chest of drawer combo, chiffoniers, Escritoires, bouillotte tables (round), “tronchin” tables

if you know what a fan of cool desks I am, you might have had the same aha-moment that I did, about the origin of the standing desk… perhaps Louis XVI style tronchin?


Wife: Marie Antionette – Not the most popular person in French History…her frivolous conduct and scandal helped to discredit the monarchy, Piranesi (drawings, engravings- ruins, Pompeii)


The French Revolution began during Louis XVI’s reign, extending from 1789-1799, resulting in the overthrow of the monarchy in France and the establishment of the First Republic.

I could go on for days with much more detail, but I won’t. Just a enough to explain the context for the style changes. If you would like to see more of this kind of post, please message me to let me know. Specific requests are welcome. If you know any interior design students, do them a favor and share this with them, I would’ve thanked anyone a million times over for a decorative arts crib sheet while I was in design school.


Wait- there’s more. If you are a fan of juicy French Decorative Arts History, you might enjoy these posts:

Fork You, Said Catherine de Medici

Sevres Porcelain 

more on Desks:  Standing Desks

French Poster Art

Klismos Chairs

Pin It on Pinterest