10 French Furniture Styles You Should Know

A Louis XV style suite of furniture, walnut, late 19th century. Sold for €3,750 via Christie's (October 2011).

More than any other country, France’s complex political history is reflected in the fine and decorative arts of each era. From the absolute monarchs that emerged in the 16th century to the French Revolution and beyond, the socio-political zeitgeist of the country has long influenced the types of furniture and ornamentation preferred by the elite and bourgeoisie.

Popular French furniture movements and their approximate date ranges include:

  1. Louis XIII (15901660)
  2. Louis XIV (16601715)
  3. Régence (17151730)
  4. Louis XV (17301770)
  5. Louis XVI (17701789)
  6. Directoire (17891805)
  7. Empire (18051815)
  8. Restoration (18151830)
  9. Louis Philippe (18301850)
  10. Napoleon III (Second Empire) (18481880)

Below, explore some of the most popular French furniture styles and movements from the 16th to the 19th century, and see the political events that inspired shifts in design.

Louis XIII (1590–1660)

Materials: oak, walnut, pearwood, pine, marble, metal

This style began during the reign of “Good King Henry,” Henry IV of France, and continued under his son King Louis XIII. Austere and architectural, the furniture possessed a distinctly geometric appearance with thick, heavy decoration. “Turning,” a technique in which wooden spindles are shaped with chisels and gouges while being spun through a lathe, was often used for ornamentation.

Louis XIV (1660–1715)

A Louis XIV Mazarin desk with a scale and engraved brass marquetry, attributed to Nicolas Sageot. Sold via Tajan for €41000 (October 2017).

Materials: chestnut, walnut, oak, ebony, brass, pewter, silver, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl

The 72-year reign of Louis the Sun King is the longest recorded of any European monarch, marked by military triumph and overwhelming opulence. During this era, the commode, console tables, and desks became popular, as did mirrors, chandeliers, and candelabras. Decoration in the form of marquetry, carving, and painting was inspired by mythology, nature, and war. Notable motifs were the royal emblem (the sun) and the fleur-de-lis.

Régence (1715–1730)

Materials: oak, pine, poplar, beech, walnut, bronze

Between 1715 and 1723 France was ruled by a Regent, Philippe d’Orléans, while King Louis XV was too young to rule. During this period, furniture began to exhibit characteristics of the Rococo style. Seating became more intimate and comfortable, and plentiful decoration in the form of veneers, gilt bronze, and wood marquetry was popular. Common pieces included bookcases, cane chairs, chaise longues, and drop-front secretaries.

Louis XV (1730–1770)

Materials: oak, walnut, marble, porcelain

Louis XV reigned without his Regent for 50 years, during which time French culture and influence were at their height in furniture-making and beyond, even as the political influence of the monarchy waned. Curved lines and asymmetry overtook geometry as the style of choice, and while furniture became more practical and easily transported, it was nonetheless elegant. New items were introduced, like chiffoniers, card tables, dressing tables, and roll-top desks. Ornamentation included exotic themes, female faces, flowers, shells, doves, and dolphins. Oriental themes were pervasive as global trade became more accessible.

Louis XVI (1770–1789)

Materials: oak, walnut, ash, mahogany, ebony, porcelain, copper, steel, bronze, marble

Furniture created during the reign of King Louis XVI favored a more rustic feeling than previous eras. Increasingly, dining room tables came into use. Mahogany was popularized, and turning came back into fashion as a means for decoration. Straighter lines and right angles returned, and classical motifs became typical once more while human faces, flora and fauna remained popular decorative motifs.

Directoire (1789–1805)

Four Directoire carved fruitwood lyre-back side chairs, late 18th century. Sold via Freeman’s (October 2017).

Materials: elm, walnut, beech, ebony, copper, brass

After the collapse of the monarchy, France entered a tumultuous period of revolution marked by Neoclassical forms, which reflected the importance of Roman Republic principles to France’s new leaders. The demand for decorative arts was high but clients did not possess the same exacting eye as before, so furniture was mainly economical with some design flourishes.

Empire (1805–1815)

Empire Mahogany Daybed, early 19th century. $7,800 via Antiques Period, LLC.

Materials: mahogany, walnut, burled elm, bronze, marble

The Empire style was popularized during the reign of Napoleon I and is marked by a continuation of Neoclassical motifs from the era preceding it, albeit in a more elegant and opulent way. Napoleon centralized artistic production so that furniture design was consistent, its grandeur marked by symmetrical ornamentation and large, solid forms. While other styles developed after Napoleon lost power, the Empire style was in favor for many decades.

Restoration (1815–1830)

Materials: ash, elm, maple, marble

When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, the Bourbons once again ruled France. The reintroduction of the monarchy influenced furniture design of the time, which was comfortable and portable. Molding was delicate, as light as other ornamentation, and popular motifs included cornucopias, floral bouquets, and ribbons.

Louis Philippe (1830–1850)

Materials: mahogany, rosewood, walnut

Louis Philippe came to power when his cousin, Charles X, was forced to abdicate after the July Revolution (an event that inspired the allegorical painting “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix). The rise of the bourgeoisie led to a deviation from the formality of earlier furniture to softer, sparser designs. Most pieces were curvilinear, and coil spring upholstery was popularized.

Napoleon III (Second Empire) (1848–1880)

Lot 259: A pair of Napoleon III side cabinets with tortoise-shell and brass marquetry. The Pedestal (November 21).

Materials: ebony, walnut, cast iron, mother-of-pearl, porcelain

Like the scattered history of the 19th century in France, the furniture of Napoleon III’s rule is an eclectic mix of previous periods and outside influences. Seating options, such as ottomans, were extremely popular and extensively produced. Decorative imagery was pulled from Asia, Africa, and native cultures in America.

Looking for more antique furniture? Check out 15 British Furniture Styles You Should Know and explore Fine Furniture & Objects from The Pedestal, as well as hundreds of examples from centuries past available from Susan Silver Antiques, Antiques on Old Plank Road, and more.