Empire Style Interior Design

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.

Explore the ostentatious interiors influenced by Napoleon Bonaparte. In this lesson, discover the Empire style and learn about its main characteristics. Also, identify some elements that can be used for designing Empire interiors.

The Empire Style

If you were to design an interior in early 19th-century France, you'd have strict guidelines defined to please the taste of the Emperor. Although today we have more freedom, we can still be inspired by the elegance and magnificence of the Empire style.

The Empire style takes its name from the government of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, who ruled between 1804 and 1814 and was proclaimed Emperor, though it technically started in 1800 under the Consulate and lasted until 1815. It's part of the Neoclassical current inspired by ancient Greece and Rome and was important in architecture, decoration, and furniture design. To a lesser degree, it was also seen in other visual arts.

During the main part of the Empire style's heyday, Napoleon directly influenced many aspects of decoration and design by dictating requirements and guidelines that artists and craftsmen had to obey. He promoted this style as a mean of propaganda and a way of exhibiting the power of the Empire. The Empire style spread to other parts of Europe, where it was also associated with political power.

Throne Room in Fontainebleau Castle, France
Throne Room

Characteristics of the Empire Style Interior Design

The Empire style drew most of its inspiration from the Classical world, especially the Roman Empire. Ancient Egypt also started to be an influence after a French military campaign there awakened new fascination for this civilization.

This was a propagandistic style, so the interiors were meant to impress. They'd have an imposing character that was achieved with massive elements, symmetrical, and rigid layouts, as well as the use of plenty of straight lines and sharp corners.

Ornaments

Gilded ornaments were very popular and became a characteristic of this period. The gilding process consisted on covering different embellishments with gold leaves, to make them look like solid gold.

The decorative motifs evoked the ancient civilizations. Many interiors featured pilasters and columns inspired by the Roman Empire. Lions, eagles, vases, cornucopias, and mythological creatures were other common Roman motifs. Sphinxes and palm leaves were among the references to ancient Egypt. Napoleon's regime was militaristic, so military-related motifs like trophies, coats of arms, and spires were also incorporated to the decoration.

Colors

The rooms usually had bold color combinations. The ornamentation provided lots of golden elements that contrasted with all other colors. Light tones or even full white were used for walls and ceilings and they'd be paired with the dark green, blue, or red hues of the upholstery. However, dark tones weren't used all at once. Each room had its own palette usually with only one dark color.

Napoleons bedroom in Fontainebleau. Green was combined with lighter tones
Napoleon-s Bedroom

Floors, Walls and Ceilings

Floors had diverse finishes, the most common being parquet: small wooden pieces arrayed in geometric patterns. Some rooms had marble floors while big carpets were commonly found in the throne rooms.

Walls featured plenty of plaster decorative moldings covered with a gilded finish. It was common to use straight moldings for defining frames on the walls. The doors had the same ornamentation.

Paintings weren't very common for decorating walls. Instead, we find large mirrors that enhanced lighting and made rooms look bigger.

Painting room (hall of mirrors) at the Grand Trianon of Versailles
Hall of Mirrors

Upholstery was another wall treatment. Elegant fabrics like satin, silk, and velvet were sometimes used to cover walls. Around beds and thrones, we often find tall draped fabrics hanging from elaborate frames.

Ceilings were much simpler than walls and usually, they only featured a few moldings on the joints with the walls. Big chandeliers were often the most notorious decorative element on the ceiling. They featured plenty of candles, crystal pieces, and gilded details. During the day, most rooms had good natural lighting thanks to the big windows.

Plain ceiling with a big chandelier in Versailles
Chandelier

Furniture

The Empire furniture echoed the characteristics of the overall style. The pieces featured plenty of straight lines, usually had a massive scale, and had plenty of gilded ornaments. Mahogany with a polished finish was a common material. Other pieces were made with less-expensive woods and then painted or gilded.

Small rounded tables with three legs were very popular and the boat beds became a characteristic piece. Beds were usually placed lengthwise against the wall.

Gilded Furniture in Fontainebleau
Empire style furniture

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