Louis XVI style is characterized by simple design and construction. Its lines are elegant but subtle, delicate without being too feminine, and laden with the symbolism of the historical and philosophical transformations of the Enlightenment. The most popular of the Louis styles today, its clean lines complement contemporary interiors and place an emphasis on straight lines and right angles, seriousness, logical design, and more classically inspired motifs.
A classical revival was inspired by the excavation of Pompeii in 1748. Combined with a backlash against the excesses of the Rococo style and a new moral and philosophical emphasis on simplicity, this archaeological discovery created the perfect environment for Neoclassicism.
Superfluous ornament, rococo tendencies, and baroque excess was no longer popular. The new style among elites was to replace the fussy elegance of ceremonial rooms and town houses of large cities with small, rustic retreats. In an attempt to show their understanding of the resentment of the common French people, the rich and bourgeois began to favor furniture that was less frivolous.
Designers also looked back to the more architectural furniture of the Louis XIV period, keeping lines and design elements simple and less ornate. There is much use of egg and dart, carved friezes, oak and laurel leaf, wreaths, and cornucopias. Architectural motifs like fluted columns were prevalent. Moulding, gold leaf, painted wood, and rosette carvings atop legs were also common.
The taste of Marie Antoinette, queen to Louis XVI, is also given a great deal of credit for the existence of the Neoclassical style in furniture design. She was responsible for the making of many of the small pieces of furniture found in her apartment at Versailles. Neoclassicism furnished the Queen’s apartments even while it heralded the end of the monarchy.
Chairs of the Louis XVI period are more angular than those of the Louis XV style. Chair backs tend to be rectangular, oval, or shaped like a shield, and in that respect less comfortable. The basic difference between the two styles is that the Louis XV chair doesn't have a single straight line, while the Louis XVI chair always has at least straight legs. These legs are easily identifiable. Instead of the "S" shaped cabriole leg of the Rococo chair, Louis XVI chairs have straight legs. Turned elements became common thanks to straight lines being the new fashion. Legs and vertical supports were turned in various ways, resembling spindles, quivers, columns, and balusters.
Walnut, ash, and burled walnut was used for seating and movable pieces. Oak was used for solid wood pieces, carved wooden ornament, and for certain chairs. Mahogany became very fashionable, while ebony came back en vogue after being banished during the Louis XV period. Various fruitwoods were still used. The marbles used were white, gray, or sometimes red with veining.
Expensive materials were still the rule and very skilled artisans whom only the wealthy could employ made the furniture, just as they had during the reign of Louis XV. Attempts were made to identify with the starving Parisians by using the natural grain of the woods to create pattern and design on case goods. Louis XVI even wore a peasant hat in a portrait to try and express this sentiment of humbleness. Despite their efforts, both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined at the Place de la Concorde in 1793.
The downfall of the Louis XVI style was the downfall of Louis himself. The common people felt the rich and influential had not sacrificed enough by merely living with less opulent furniture, thus bringing on the French Revolution of 1789. French furniture lost its position of dominance at this time, making the early 19th century the last great period in French furniture making.
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