November 01, 2012

All About Louis

“So which is yourfavorite Louis”? Monsieur X leaned over and inquired. The entire dinner table went quiet. Even after a two year sojourn in Paris, I still didn’t have a grip on the Louies, but instead of coming clean I blurted out the first one that came to mind: “Louis XIV”. “Vraiment?” he replied with the faintest look of horror. It was only months later I understood his puzzlement.

Although I soon was taught to abhor labeling furniture by the reign in which something was made (as interiors weren’t jettisoned the moment a ruler died), 18th century France does seem to be the exception. During this time, style and luxury became the country’s greatest export and were hand-in-hand with its national identity.

Louis XIV (reign 1643 – 1715)

Louis XIV showing off his dancing legs

Versailles' power corridor: The Hall of Mirrors

It was the Sun King himself who awed the world with the magnificence of his palace Versailles. Courtiers were kept in line with pomp and ceremony and the decorative arts reflected the mighty power of its sovereign in their somber splendor. Today the stiff opulence of this style is better suited to a Wall Street titan’s duplex or in a museum than most mere mortals’ domiciles.

A Louis XIV room in miniature from the Julia Thorne rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago

A Louis XIV bureau Mazarin in a setting by Valerian Rybar

Louis XV (1723 – 1774)

Louis XV, Quatroze’s great-grandson – lower heels, lower hair

The Dauphine’s apartment at Versailles

The Louis XV sitting room at the musee Nissim de Camondo

Louis XV by contrast is about intimacy and comfort reflected in curved backs, cabriole legs, and smaller proportions. It is my friend Maureen Footer’s favorite and the showroom pictured above features a few of her own Louis XV pieces.

An interior, circa 1915, painted by Walter Gay illustrates Louis XV curves

Louis XV chairs in an Elsie de Wolfe treillaged room

A showhouse room by Maureen Footer

Louis XV-style chairs in this living-dining room by Jonathan Berger

Louis XVI (reign 1774 - 1792)

Louis XVI who perhaps spent too much time hunting and making locks

Louis XVI salon at the chateau de Champ de Bataille

If I could be beamed back in time, my answer now to Monsieur X would be Louis Seize. Straight lines, precision of form, and Classical ornament – strigillation, anyone? – send my pulse racing. Excavations of the ancient Roman cities Herculaneum and Pompeii fueled a new fascination with antiquity in the second half of the 18th century. Neoclassicism was not just a passing fad – it continued to dominate design through Napoleon’s reign, and was returned to a century later in Art Deco and beyond with great aplomb as you can see in the following and in my tome Regency Redux...

Pauline de Rothschild’s sitting room at Albany, decorated by John Fowler

A verre eglomise paneled entrance hall by Michael Simon

Paris salon infused with the neoclassical spirit by Jean-Louis Deniot

Neoclassical seat furniture in the apartment of interior designer Bill Brockschmidt and architect Richard Dragisic

And which Louis are you?
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Saying Goodbye to one of the Finest Rooms in America

When asked to select my all-time favorite American interior, one room has always sprung to mind first and foremost: Mr. and Mrs. John Gutfreund’s “winter garden” sitting room at 834 Fifth Avenue. In this lush oasis of fresh lettuce greens and delicate pinks, the hustle bustle of New York’s concrete streets outside those silk -festooned windows melts away.