A Glimpse of Modern Design from 1790s France
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.
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.
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,
More than simply a style of transition, Directoire furniture represents
a peek into the future — much like the revolution that inspired it.