Exhibition | Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces, 1650–1789

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on October 29, 2014


André-Charles Boulle, Louis XIV’s commode; made of resinous wood, ebony veneer, tortoiseshell and bronze inlay, gilt bronze, griotte marble; Paris, 1708, H. 88 x 131 x 65 cm (Versailles, National Museum of the Palaces of Versailles and Trianon; Inv. VMB 14279.1) 

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From the Château de Versailles:

Eighteenth Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces, 1650–1789
18e, aux sources du design, chefs-d’œuvre du mobilier 1650 à 1790
Château de Versailles, 28 October 2014 — 22 February 2015

From 28 October 2014 to 22 February 2015, the Palace of Versailles is hosting the exhibition 18th Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces from 1650 to 1790 in the Africa and Crimea Rooms. The exhibition offers a glimpse of the ingenuity of a bygone era viewed from a present-day perspective and showcases the innovative and avant-garde nature of the shapes, techniques, decorations, and materials used in 18th-century furniture. The exhibition includes around 100 major works from collections at the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre Museum, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Palace of Fontainbleau, and the Getty Museum, alongside works from private collections which will be on show to the public for the first time. Cabinets, desks, writing tables, commodes, and console tables, but also sofas, armchairs, folding chairs, and seating chairs will testify to the revolution that the 18th century brought about in the history of furniture, a reflection of the evolving tastes of a society enamoured by modernity and wanting to live in comfort and luxury.

Jacques Gondoin and François II Foliot, Chair from the Pavillon du Rocher at the Petit Trianon; carved, gilded beech; 1781, 89 x 56 x 56 cm (Versailles, National Museum of the Palaces of Versailles and Trianon, Inv. V 5358)

Jacques Gondoin and François II Foliot, Chair from the Pavillon du Rocher at the Petit Trianon; carved, gilded beech; 1781, 89 x 56 x 56 cm (Versailles, National Museum of the Palaces of Versailles and Trianon, Inv. V 5358)

Concept of Design

In 1712, Shaftesbury introduced the term and concept of design to art theory. It contains the dual meaning of ‘plan’ and ‘intention’ and unifies the processes of conceiving and shaping a work. For the first time, furniture was planned with forethought, created with specific intention and shaped for both functionality and comfort. 18th-century furniture was produced according to design sources, both in its overall conception and its quest for harmony between form and function.

The Transformation of Furniture

The quest for the ideal shape and form hit its peak in the 18th century, when the shape of furniture began to change. Inventiveness and creativity abounded and new outlines began to take shape, from console tables to commodes to secretary and armoire desks. Rigid outlines began to soften, then morphed into rounded curves, subsequently giving way to curved legs—sometimes four, six or even eight of them. Furniture became multi-purpose and featured mechanisms that allowed it to transform into something else.

Boldness of Materials and Colours

The same quest characterised the use of materials: furniture was covered with exotic woods, lacquers, varnishes, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, bronze, brass, lead, porcelain, straw, steel and stone marquetry. Cloth, bulrush and copper began to be used in chairs. Long before the garish colours afforded by plastic in the 20th and 21st centuries, the 18th century saw the birth of furniture in red, daffodil yellow, turquoise blue, apple green, partially gilded or silvered, etc. At the same time, other colour palettes were limited to the black and gold of lacquer and bronze, and patterns were reduced to natural ones made out of quality materials such as mahogany.

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The catalogue is available in both French and English:

18th Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces, 1650–1790 (Dijon: Éditions Faton, 2014), 280 pages, ISBN 978-2878441949 (English) / 978-2878441901 (French), 42€.

D8CECD6E-6A77-817F-9E0F-3A1AD567A06EFileThe sole purpose of this book, published to tie in with the magnificent exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, is to lay bare the incredible inventiveness of the century of Enlightenment, a century in which, for the first time, furniture became an art. Architects, artists and dealers as well as ordinary craftsmen set about organising furniture and elaborating it as never before.

The eighteenth century was to turn three everyday acts—sitting, sitting at table, storing things—into an art. Furniture changed its skin and shape. For the first time, it explored new materials, sought out new forms. It broke free of architecture, but went on playing with some of its styles. It became movable and occasional, and the notion of comfort came into being. Furniture found its identity in everyday actions to which it was closely linked. The connection between the individual and furniture became obvious. From its disposition to its ingenuity, and through the matchless quality of its incomparable workmanship, furniture in the eighteenth century came to be an integral part of daily life and fashion, quick to respond to changing moods and styles. Having thus secured both a new status and recognition, it became for ever a distinct element in the intellectual process of creation.

Daniel Alcoufe, conservateur général honoraire
Gérard Mabille, conservateur général honoraire
Yves Carlier, conservateur en chef au Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Patrik Hourcade, photographe et designer
Patrick Lemasson, conservateur en chef au Musée du Petit Palais

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