What Is Rococo Furniture?
Rococo furniture refers to interior design pieces from inspired by the extravagantly decorated Rococo period in 18th century France. Noted for its extensive decoration, Rococo furniture is sumptuous and extreme in design, and often employs many different types of material and ornamentation in a single piece. While Rococo furniture may not suit more modest taste, it can provide an aura of luxury and will definitely create an design centerpiece that is impossible to miss.
The Rococo period in France and central Europe came on the heels of the slightly more restrained Baroque period, beginning in the mid 1700s. Popularized by Louis XV's influential mistress, Madame de Pompadour, Rococo design emphasized detail, well-defined sculpted lines, and ornamentation. This era is sometimes considered the height of French decorative art, thanks to the extreme focus on perfected details in every piece. Not surprisingly, the Rococo period was followed by a Neoclassical backlash, in which curving, gilded swirls were overtaken by a return to plain, monochromatic, and geometric styles reminiscent of Ancient Rome.
Many decorative arts, such as painting, gilding, and bronzing, were used to add additional levels of detail and magnificence to Rococo furniture. During the period, a decorative chair might pass through several different workshops on its path to completion, including a carpenter, carver, upholsterer, and gilder. Not surprisingly, the detailed style was primarily used by wealthy merchants and the nobility, as few middle-class or working-class households could afford such dramatic decoration.
Rococo furniture tends to feature a fully sculpted look, in which no element has been left without attention and detail. Tabletops, for instance, are often shaped and carved, rather than being left as rough rectangles or circles. Some traditional Rococo furniture also features intentionally eschew symmetry, finding charm in the contrast between asymmetric lines. Surfaces are carved in S-shapes, curls, or shell-like designs, mimicking the undulating lines found in nature, rather than straight lines.
Popular types of Rococo furniture include chairs, sofas, tables, and bed stands. Mirrors with highly ornamented frames are especially popular in Rococo design, as the period marked the beginning of access to inexpensive, well-made glass in Europe. Small tables and footstools are also associated with Rococo furniture, as the era popularized the idea of light, easily movable furniture.
Upholstery fabrics are also important to Rococo; silk and velvet fabrics are typical choices. Fabric patterns frequently displayed floral or pastoral designs, sometimes made to match the carved decorations on the furniture. Chinese design also influenced Rococo upholstery, many reproduction fabrics depict highly romanticized views of Chinese pagodas, dragons, and villages.
What Is the Difference Between Baroque and Rococo Furniture?
The term Baroque refers to the era of the 17th and 18th centuries A.D. Originating in Italy, the elaborate style of art and architecture developed as a counter-movement to the classical Renaissance period that preceded it. The Roman Catholic Church increased in wealth and power during the 17th century, so the papacy had a strong impact on popular style. Religious leaders favored ornate designs in their art, architecture and furnishings because they believed these items would remind people of God's majesty.
As more Europeans had access to wealth, they preferred furniture that reflected their elevated social status. Upper-class homes were filled with more decorative than functional pieces. A table was no longer merely a place to gather for a communal meal; aristocrats were willing to pay more for artistically crafted furniture. The Baroque style is characterized by elaborate ornamentation, symmetry and large scale.
In the latter part of the era, art and architecture were influenced more by the flamboyant tastes of the French monarchy and less by the Church. Baroque characteristics of heavy ornamentation gave way to lighter themes. Designs became more whimsical and less grandiose. This style was known as Rococo, from the French word "rocaille."
Baroque furniture makers chose dark, dense woods like mahogany and ebony for their grand designs. To enhance the opulence of a piece, they added a veneer or an inlay of marble or other colored stones. The Rococo style is characterized by lighter, more delicate woods. As global trade expanded farther East, craftsmen had access to more exotic materials. As a result, Rococo furniture is decorated with tortoiseshell inlay or rare wood veneers.
The popular style featured large furniture with thick, strong legs. Baroque designers created oversized pieces for wealthy consumers looking to make a grand display. The influence of Rococo led to smaller, more delicate furniture. Tables and chairs were made with thinner, curved legs, inspired by nature rather than architecture.
Early Baroque furniture, like the opulent, masculine architecture of the time, was designed to give the impression of balance, wealth and power. Artisans decorated their pieces with symmetrical scrollwork and columns. Toward the end of the era, as Rococo style spread across Europe, furniture designs were increasingly asymmetrical, feminine and whimsical. Pieces were often adorned with gold gilding and intricate inlays. Scrollwork took on a more playful flair, with curls made to look like vines twisting around the wood.
Cultural historians consider the French Palace of Versailles the height of Baroque architectural design. King Louis XIV employed Parisian cabinet maker Andre-Charles Boulle to create furniture for the palace. In his designs, Boulle used monograms, inlays, metal gilding and veneers. His furniture matched the elaborate architecture of the palace.
The English Cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale is known for his Rococo style furniture. His pieces showed evidence of Asian influence with lacquers and exotic inlays. Trade with the Far East made it possible for Chippendale to use materials Europeans had never seen.
What Is the Other Name for the Rococo Style?
Rococo is also known as Late Baroque because it is an extension of Baroque style, sharing the same elaborate features. However, the differences between designs of the early and later parts of the era are notable enough that giving the Late Baroque a distinct name was reasonable.
European culture in the 17th and 18th centuries underwent changes that influenced art and architecture. Several factors contributed to the dramatic shift in style from Baroque to Rococo:
- The French monarchy transitioned from Louis XIII to Louis XIV.
- Global trade expanded, leading to increased exchange of products and ideas.
- Culture was influenced less by the Church and more by the monarchy.
- Wealthy consumers rejected the pomposity of Baroque design.
Rococo was alternately called Rocaille, from the French word for a type of design using pebbles or shells as decoration. Rocaille became popular during the Renaissance when wealthy Italians had fountains and artificial grottoes built on their property. Artisans ground together shells and pebbles, which they cemented in place, creating a watery theme.
During the Rococo era, furnituremakers used the rocaille technique to adorn some of their pieces. As in the Renaissance, Rococo artists were inspired by water. Using shells and pebbles in their designs, they brought oceans and rivers indoors. Wealthy consumers preferred form over function, whimsy over practicality.
I saw Rococo furniture for the first time in a book about European royalty. At the time, I was pretty impressed with it and thought it quite wonderful.
Now, with a few years behind me, I can see how over the top it was, but it certainly makes a statement, as the article says. I remember seeing a photo of a small mirror in the Palace of Versailles, and it was incredible. I still might like to have that mirror, although it would clash frightfully with everything else I have, which might be charitably called "Eclectic" or more accurately, "Early Attic."
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