One of the most requested ‘looks’ I get from my clients is ‘Louis XVI.’ Characterized by straight lines and brass inlay, the elegant look of Louis XVI blends in effortlessly with today’s modern interiors.
Louis XVI furniture is named after the reign of the French King Louis XVI in 1774-1792. The original pieces came at the direction of his wife, Marie Antionette. She was attracted to neoclassical style and inspired by Greco-Roman art, a departure from the ornate baroque decoration of the early-to-mid 18th century. She was a significant patron and interested in interior design, redecorating parts of the Palace of Versailles, Palace of Fontainebleu and the Tuileries Palace.
While the most valuable Louis XVI antiques come from the late 18th century, the style has been copied throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. You may hear dealers using the word ‘period’ to describe a Louis XVI commode made during the reign of Louis XVI in the second half of the 18th century. However, a Louis XVI style commode could be anything from a 19th century version to one made yesterday. Period pieces are more collectible and expensive than pieces ‘in the style of.’ The period Louis XVI pieces tend to be more embellished and inlaid than later 19th and 20th century copies.
The hallmarks of Louis XVI style furniture, from chairs to commodes are symmetry, clean lines, and restrained decoration (at least compared to previous heavy ornamentation of Louis XV). Louis XVI furniture, particularly chairs and consoles, were frequently painted, with either gilt or white paint. In fact, the Louis XVI period had more painted furniture than any other French period.
“Characterized by straight lines and brass inlay, the elegant look of Louis XVI blends in effortlessly with today’s modern interiors”-Jessica Lev
Chairs back can be oval or square, but had a straight, tapered and often fluted leg, more neoclassical in design compared to the cabriole legs of their predecessors. They were almost always painted. They are traditionally associated with a rosette carved at the top of each leg. The older examples use peg construction, so look out for small, round pegs holding the chairs together. They are often most noticeable at the top of the chair.
Like the seating of the period, commodes and case pieces have straight lines and square edges. They were adorned with bronze fittings and hardware. Frequently the drawers or doors are trimmed in bronze or brass. To spot the older commodes (early 20th century and earlier), look out for hand-cut dovetailing. You can tell if they are constructed by hand if dovetails are irregularly cut, and do not look machine made.
Desks and consoles pieces combine the straight, tapered legs of the chairs and the inlay and detailing of the case pieces. Similarly to case pieces, check drawers for hand dovetailing.
While you may have heard the term ‘Louis mirror,’ the popular, curved topped mirrors actually refer to those in the style of Louis Philippe, not Louis XVI. The Louis XVI mirrors were more angular—usually rectangular in shape and often with a crest or central decoration at the top center.
Jessica Lev is the Antiques Expert for The Traditional List and has been a contributor since 2021. Other popular articles of her include:
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