Neoclassical Furniture

It was almost as if, it was frozen in time till it was rediscovered in 1748 by a surveying engineer. Why is this significant and what is the connection with Neoclassical furniture. Apparently, there is a significant connect; which helps us trace to the origins of this distinct furniture and the corresponding era. The buildings, art and artifacts of this town were frozen forever, offering an unprecedented peek into this ancient world. Similar was the fate of Herculaneum, which lay at the western base of Mount Vesuvius; which unlike Pompeii, saw a mass of tuffaceous material form over the city, preserving it considerably. The preservation was so complete that wooden framework of houses, wooden furniture, pieces of cloth and even carbonized loaves of bread were conserved due to the ground humidity.

Neoclassical furniture came into vogue as a direct off-shoot of Neoclassical architecture, which began in the 18th century (late 1740s onwards) in Italy and France. Many believe it was a conscious move away from the more indulgent Baroque or Rococo styles of furniture. The archeological discoveries of the two famed cities of the Roman Empire, stated above; corresponding published records and influence of the ‘Grand Tour’, led to the emergence of this symmetrical, simple geometrical and less ornamental style of architecture based on styles viewed in these ancient cities. This then translated into the Neoclassical furniture, which retained these unique features of straight lines, rectilinear forms, with certain ornamental features from the Classical era (of the Roman and Greek civilizations). A strictly simple style yet drawing considerably on Marquetry for decorative purposes and inlaying furniture with brass, tortoiseshell and other types of material for generating creative patterns (referred to as Boulle) were common features. Use of columns, classical reliefs and gilt was common. It draws on antiquity from the Classical era and can have elegant and lighter motifs sculpted in or painted in single tones.  

Neoclassical furniture in France came to be divided into 3 distinct phases of Louis XI’s style (also called Louis Seize); Directoire and Empire Style. Neoclassical furniture under Louis XI’s reign carried all the features mentioned above; with oak, mahogany and walnut being the preferred woods. Decoration included gilded carvings with floral patterns, more often than not and upholstery was usually satin. New varieties of furniture were introduced, including different types of commodes (chest of drawers) and different adaptations of a table. Surfaces were often inlaid with chequered patterns or intricate designs. The Directoire style saw more finesse and subtlety, with sparse detail and ornamentation and is seen as a transitional style between Louis XI and the Empire Style. Richness, splendour and florid opulence was witnessed in the Empire Style, somewhat in contrast to the Directoire Style. Symbols and ornaments of the Roman and Greek Empire were used, which suggests a greater emphasis on usage of archeological findings into design ideas. Mahogany-veneered furniture with ormolu mounts, were commonly seen, as was Egyptian ornamentation. One often saw chiseled mounts and antique motifs used for decoration with Mahogany veneer. The leading names associated with the latter two furniture styles are Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine.

A further note on commodes and tables would throw light on the extent of creativity in these pieces of furniture. Commodes were actually made earlier in the 18th century (by Andre Charles Boulle), but within the Neoclassical style, their façade was often divided into three parts, with a projecting front. Another feature could be drawers enclosed by doors. A mechanical table (with mechanical devices to enhance the utilitarian functions, such as top sliding back) could function as a writing, reading or even a dressing table. Queen Marie Antoinette, the consort of King Louis XI was known to patronize the creations of Neoclassical furniture makers whose creations for her included a fall-front secretary (a variant of the secretary desk) and a matching commode. These creations were veneered with Japanese lacquer, which gives us a sense of the design and material features of this unique style of furniture. Gilt-bronze mounts with flowers and ribbon-shaped handles were other features of this fabulous creation.

From Italy and France, the Neoclassical furniture style, quite naturally spread to the rest of the continent and even beyond. We then see an emergence of subtle variations and regional modifications based on local tastes. For instance, in England in the 1760s, one saw a more subtle and less-emphasized version of what was produced during the Classical era by the Palladians. Palladian architecture was predominantly established in Britain, drawing from the works of the Italian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio. Conspicuous lack of ornamentation is one of the glaring features, which one finds in the furniture as well. The finest example of this Neoclassical version in Britain can be witnessed in the works of Robert Adam (Late Georgian Era), who used classical ornamentation in a restrained way along with marquetry, ormolu mounts and paintings as decoration. The predominant features of the Neoclassical furniture in Britain became refinement and delicacy in design (tending towards a feminine tone and quality) and symmetry and proportion were rarely compromised as they were the defining characteristics of this type of furniture. Tapered and fluted support for tables, chairs and other pieces of furniture is a very distinctive feature as well, along with several pieces of heart or shield-shaped backs for chairs and settees. Columns, masks, pediments, feathers, ribbons were common motifs. The latter part of the Neoclassical furniture era in Britain saw the emergence of ostentation in the form of Regency style of furniture. This style corresponds to the Empire Style in France. Motifs such as sphinxes, lions and ancient Gods were used as decorative elements and lacquered finishes added another unique touch to this style.

In the United States, Neoclassical furniture came to be known as the Federal Style. The style drew heavily from the French and British counterparts (Georgian and Adam styles). Cherry and Walnut was often used, while light-toned wood finishes were also seen in several parts. Surfaces were decorated with inlay work using contrasting woods or even low relief carvings. Often-seen furniture pieces included the sideboard and secretary desk. Pictorial motifs usually carried the Federal government symbols. Geometric forms and inlay patterns, straight legs and contrasting veneers are some of the other features.

The history of furniture in India, according to several accounts began with the furniture-making tradition of the Vijayanagar Empire in Southern India (14th Century AD). The furniture was for royalty and ceremonial in design. As far as everyday living was concerned, for majority of Indians, furniture was either minimal (low chairs, charpoys and so on) or largely absent. With the coming of the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the English, we see influences from these countries, leading to various furniture styles such as the Mughal style; Goanese style; Indo-Dutch style and use of certain woods and materials, like ebony and ivory, on the lines of the Neoclassical tradition of the famous furniture designers, Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton in England. Indian craftsmen were particularly good with woodcarving and inlaying; techniques which are also seen in typical Neoclassical furniture. While clearly distinguishable eras in furniture styles may not be as apparent as in the western world, due to differing environments; the influx of foreigners into India, naturally led to their preferences directing supply of furniture which was to their liking. Woods used included rosewood, ebony, acacia, teak and North Indian Rosewood. The Indo-Portuguese style of furniture-making, which resulted from craftsmen using their own skill to make Portuguese replicas (which created a unique style), was called the Mughal style in the North and Goanese style in the south. Under the Mughal style we saw tables and writing desks in dark wood, with inlay work and in the Goanese style we saw large cabinets with inlaid work in geometric designs. Finally, a hint of the Neoclassical furniture tradition seems to have entered India, along with the English, with designs and ideas in line with Chippendale and Sheraton, mentioned earlier. This furniture was also highly sought after by the Indian royalty.

The Neoclassical furniture style, is marked in its aesthetic appeal, with congruous geometric lines on the one hand and understated, delicate and light detailing in its decorative aspects. Overall, it is the perfect furniture style for those who want to replicate a by-gone era in European history which is marked by the most authentic cultural and artistic achievements!

1 comment

Looks elegant and ethnic. Impressive. Thanx! Best wishes.

Rupa November 29, 2022

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