The Empire style (closely aligned to the 'Regency' era in England) was a cultural movement that permeated all forms of art and design during a period of roughly twenty years, between 1810 and 1830, following on from the fin de siècle Directoire style before it. Both movements originated in France, and were largely propounded by the aesthetic philosophies of two master designers, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. They introduced a new wave of highly decorative and consciously archeological neoclassicm to the furniture makers of France and England, as well as those of the Nordic countries and Northern Europe. Like many of their contemporaries, their classical artistic training meant that they could accurately record the objects they encountered on voyages to ancient sites in Italy and Greece, and transpose many of their motifs onto new designs.

Charles Percier: View of a Roman house.  Paris, Musée du Louvre.

The major materials to look out for when considering the Empire style are exotic woods such as rosewood and ebony, as well as soft furnishings made from silk velvet and boldly patterned damasks. Ormolu - cast and gilded bronze decoration - was also used on furniture of the period because of its apparent material richness and high contrast with the woods below. Occasionally, one can also find enamelled or painted effects alongside the use of gilding and ormolu. The array of colours and patterns they achieved were also popular on metalwork objects, and even the porcelain from the period, particularly that of the famous Sevres factory.

Charles Percier: Salle à manger - Madame de Récamier rue de la chaussée d'Antin.  Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

The overall design of interior spaces was a fundamental aspect of the Empire style. Objects of furniture made to fairly unchanging forms in the designs of the previous century saw a large variety of developments in this period, such as the chaise longue, the washstand, or the etagere. The tripartite stem base, for example, based on ancient Roman silver and gold washstands and candle holders excavated during the Enlightenment period, saw application in many Empire designs.

A beautifully drawn Regency period faux rosewood and ormolu mounted two door chiffonier. Circa 1810

A particularly notable example of a new object finding form in the Empire era is the chiffonier. The two English Regency examples here both record Percier's and Fontaine's influence this side of the channel. They also chart developments in the era itself. The early example above includes one of the most common of all Empire motifs, the gilded lion's paw foot. The larger, more imposing presence of the chiffonier below is heightened by its experimental use of coromandel, one of the most highly figured woods available to the Regency designer.

A fine late Regency period coromandel veneered chiffonier with raised superstructure. Circa 1820

This last chiffonier illustrates the vertical development of the style, with its light superstructure and pierced brass gallery above scrolling volutes that connect it to the panelled-door cupboard below.

Of course, objects such as the chiffonier did take influence from preceding generations of furniture design. They often include a stepped front edge called a breakfront, and use the well established form of the cupboard-fronted commode. However, its extension sideways and upwards into the form of a planted, symmetrical, and sprawling piece of furniture, owes its influence most noticeably to the designs of Percier and Fontaine; architects of a harmonious, classical ideal for a new, modern republic.

See other developments in antique furniture styles, including those of the Directoire and Regency periods.


October 06, 2012 — Peter Alexander