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18th Century European Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, examine European furniture of the 18th century. Learn about the main styles that developed and were replicated in most parts of the continent. Also, explore the historical events that led to the drastic changes in styles.

Furniture in the 18th Century

Design trends often change quickly, and during the 18th century, furniture designs changed significantly. In only a few decades, the Baroque style that defined the beginning of the century was replaced by the elaborate curved lines and countless embellishments of the Rococo, which was, in turn, replaced by the straight lines and rigid geometries of the Neoclassical.

France had been the cultural center of Europe since Baroque times, and the local furniture trends were usually replicated in most parts of Europe and their colonies. Therefore, the European furniture of the 18th century is closely related to the French styles. England, however, developed its own taste, and their furniture had notorious differences. By the end of the century, the start of the French Revolution transformed this nation and gradually influenced arts and design to change once more. But let's start at the beginning.

Rococo Style

With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the French court started to abandon the forms of the Baroque in favor of a more modern style, which became known as Rococo. It is considered to have started in France around the year 1730 and developed until the 1760s.

Rococo furniture was opulent and decorated, but it was also designed to be comfortable and casual. It was more about enjoying life than showing off. This style is often known as Louis XV because it was seen during the time in power of that French king.

The layout of the pieces featured delicate forms with plenty of curved lines and rounded corners. Thin and curved stylized legs became common. The compositions were symmetrical and balanced; however, very subtle asymmetrical elements were incorporated into the decoration.

Ornaments were usually made of gilded metals and were added to the legs and the corners. They were also used to decorate larger surfaces, creating elaborate frames. The motifs often combined floral, animal, and geometric forms. Stylized seashells were also a popular motif and became known as rocailles, from which the term Rococo derives.

Rococo Commode (c. 1750)
Rococo Commode (c. 1750)

Oak, walnut, and sometimes mahogany were used for making the furniture pieces. Sometimes, inlays from different species were inserted for creating ornamental patterns. Many pieces had a stained finish, while others were painted or had gilded elements.

Marble tabletops were common, and light tones were popular. The natural irregular veins of the stone were seen as part of the decoration, and the only added decoration they had was the edge profile.

Silk was preferred for upholstery, and it often had decorative patterns of geometrical and floral motifs. Light colors were common for both the background and the decorative patterns, with the latter usually done in slightly darker tones of the same color.

Rococo Sofa (c. 1750)
Rococo Sofa

Neoclassical Style

All over Europe, the Enlightenment brought significant cultural changes. The values of society were transformed, promoting reason, freedom, and progress, and there was growing number of printed books, including the first modern encyclopedia. In 1748, the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii were discovered, and curiosity in ancient Greece and Rome boomed. Many artists rejected the exuberance of the Rococo and found in the Classical world the inspiration for a new style meant to reflect the intellectual and scientific advances. It became known as Neoclassicism and started in Rome in the mid-18th century. In France, it was first adopted by furniture makers in the 1760s.

Chairs inspired by ancient Greece and Rome (c. 1785)
Neoclassical chairs

Neoclassical furniture was very different from the Rococo, especially in form and ornamentation. It was inspired by classical elements from ancient Greece and Rome and is often referred to as the Louis XVI style, named after the French king who governed in the advent of the French Revolution.

The sinuous Rococo lines disappeared, and layouts looked massive and heavier. They were based on basic geometric shapes that featured plenty of straight lines, and the compositions were completely symmetrical. Furniture legs were straight, either rounded or rectangular, and often had plenty of vertical grooves, similar to the fluted ancient columns.

Louis XVI Armchair (1788)
Louis XVI Armchair

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