Chair Chic: Comfortable French Design in the Age of Charles X

On this date in 1825 Charles X (1757-1836) was formally consecrated and crowned King of France, during the traditional high mass held for this purpose at the Cathedral of Rheims. While his reign may not be one whose achievements jump to the minds of most non-Frenchmen, as a patron of the decorative arts Charles had interesting taste which continues to appear in furniture design to this day. In particular, the anniversary of his coronation allows us an opportunity to reflect on chair designs that represent his reign – and how his influence overcame some of the rather tacky elements of Napoleonic design which preceded it.

By the time Charles X ascended to the throne of France, following the death of his brother Louis XVIII in 1824, he already had a long-standing reputation as a lover of fine furniture and design. While criticized by many on the left for his championing of pre-Revolutionary political ideals, his appreciation of contemporary design based on older models of comfort put him in the vanguard of patronage. For someone viewed in the popular press as a reactionary, i.e. too rigid, too pro-Church, and too autocratic, it is interesting that a simple, relaxed elegance supplanted the harsh, arriviste monumentality which had characterized furniture design in the decades that preceded him.

As the youngest brother of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s favorite brother-in-law, when he was a young man Charles X witnessed the transition from the over-the-top elements of his grandfather Louis XV’s Rococo style, to a more subdued sense of luxury, softened by the example of the Petit Trianon and informed by the discoveries at Pompeii. This earliest stage of what came to be called Neoclassicism embraced more simple lines, light colored woods with floral inlay, and a less formal feel than the grandiose pomposity of the preceding decades. This graceful style was, regrettably, supplanted by an increasingly stiff and blockier design, first under the French Republic and later under Napoleon.

Napoleon’s clunky style of Neoclassicism, using materials such as dark woods in geometric forms and military motifs such as bronze mounts of eagles and war trophies, came to be inextricably associated with his reign, and therefore known as the “Empire” style. It incorporated Greek, Roman, and even Egyptian elements, sometimes in a cartoonish sort of way. The style continued beyond his rule, as design styles usually do, but it gradually began to decline in popularity in France under the Bourbon Restoration of Louis XVIII. By the time Charles X came to the throne, his more refined taste and a kind of ante-Proustian “recherche du temps perdu” prevailed.

When this earlier Empire style was finally abandoned by the moneyed classes, it was in favor of a combination of lighter, contrasting woods, and more curved, comfortable forms, often using marquetry and inlay. Though somewhat different in feel from the court of Louis XVI, many of the forms popularized by Charles X hearkened back to his older brother’s era. It is reasonable to suppose that he and the surviving members of the nobility and bourgeoisie from the days before the Revolution saw that earlier age as a happier, more relaxed time, perhaps tinged subsequently with a sense of mourning for what had been lost.

The type of chair most commonly associated with Charles X is the upholstered, curved-arm chair shown here. There are variations with a higher back, sometimes with a curved back and top rail, sometimes with a straight top and straight back. Sometimes the entire arm is upholstered with only some of the wood showing, and sometimes there is no arm at all. In other variants there is more of a complete barrel/tub shape, which in itself reflects back to the low-backed bergere styles that were popular during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

These styles have remained influential down the centuries, and indeed The Courtier has two modern variants on the Charles X tub chair in the living room at the manse. The emphasis on a graceful, yet simple curve in these chairs, not only pleases the eye but also comforts sitters of all shapes and sizes, in a way which the stiff, bolt-upright chairs of the Napoleonic period do not. One can see echoes of this style a century after the reign of Charles X in Art Deco club chairs and dining room chairs, and their modern variants, which continue to be produced today.

In trying to undo the socio-political upheavals of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic period, Charles X may not have been particularly successful. Yet in promoting the more gracious elements of his youth in daily living, he re-introduced into the vernacular of French design an appreciation for elegance on a human scale, one which avoided both the frippery of his grandfather’s reign and the clumsy bad taste of those who had tried to destroy his family. That effort, arguably, proved to be the most lasting accomplishment of his own reign.

A contemporary version of a Charles X-style tub chair

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