Directoire Furniture: An Early Glimpse of Modern Design - Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Feature: Directoire Furniture: An Early Glimpse of Modern Design

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Directoire Furniture

 A Glimpse of Modern Design from 1790s France


A classic Directoire chair
A classic Directoire chair
Stylish, versatile, utilitarian furniture that's sought-after by collectors? Thinking 1950s Eames? Try 1790s France.

The Directoire style was established during a brief period between the French Revolution and the Napoleon era. The fallout after the Revolution left a weakened government with little funds and virtually no power to enforce laws.

A hastily formed group of leaders known as the Directory organized its rule around two unifying principals: maintaining and increasing its own economic and political power; and keeping the Bourbon monarchy out of power. Each of those principals manifested themselves in the period's styles of dress and design.

Extravagant fashion top hats, snug trousers, and high boots for the men; low necklines and high waistlines for the women reflected the Directory's political excesses (some say corruption), while the furniture design mirrored the Directory's desire to break away from all things Bourbon. That meant less ornamentation, not more.

Unlike the clothes, the furniture was notable for its simplicity. Its limited detail borrowed heavily from ancient Greek and Roman designs.

Many craftsmen of the time joined the Revolution's leaders in their celebration of Antiquity, mimicking the forms and styles of ornamentation found on Grecian and Roman vases and bas reliefs.

The antique Greek chair, with its broad, concave back, was the principal model for the Directoire style chair.

It's likely no one celebrated that style more than the artist Jacques Louis David. Already established as the pre-eminent artist of the Revolution, David quickly became the biggest promoter of the new furniture style. He regularly designed furniture for his portraits, and enlisted the respected craftsman George Jacob to construct those pieces.

A typical example of Directoire furniture is the day bed Jacob made for David's portrait of Madame Recamier. The bed's two graceful out-scrolled sides are indicative of the Directoire style.

A Directoire lamp
A Directoire lamp

Yet, despite the Directory's intention, the Directoire style represented more of a transition than a clean break from the Louis XVI style.

The style is considered to be a much simpler version of the Louis XVI period. The straight lines are retained, as are many of the Greek and Roman-inspired design elements, such as lyres, stars, and diamonds. Those classical elements would come to dominate the Empire style of Napoleon's reign.

But in contrast to the two eras it separated Louis XVI and Empire the Directory period was brief, and furniture production was limited.

That makes Directoire pieces scarce, though not necessarily more coveted by today's collectors. No more so than other periods like Regence, Louis XV, or Louis XVI.

And its scarcity doesn't mean higher prices either. Directoire pieces fetch nearly the same prices at auction as Louis XV and Louis XVI articles. A Directoire chair from 1795 brought $2,990 at a recent Christie's auction compared to a 1780 Louis XVI chair, which fetched $3,680.

A Directoire mahogany table
A Directoire mahogany table
fits well with this set of
Italian neoclassic chairs

Directoire furniture did go through something of a renaissance in the United States during the 1950s. Its somewhat utilitarian nature accounted for its broad appeal. Because 70 percent of it is painted usually gray or white it has greater versatility than more ornate styles.

In addition, one of the most popular pieces of Directoire furniture in the 1950s and today is a mahogany dining room table, because it goes with different types of chairs.

Ultimately, what the style offers is perhaps the first glimpse of modern design; clean, straight lines, reduced ornamentation, and versatility.

More than simply a style of transition, Directoire furniture represents a peek into the future much like the revolution that inspired it.


Furniture 1876
Furniture 1876
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