The French rococo style is one of the longest reigning furniture and decorative arts designs. Even though it was popular in other countries, such as Italy, Germany and Scandinavia, each added their own touches. Fortunately for collectors, it is these individual characteristics that help identify the country of origin.
In France, rococo came into popularity following the brief transitional period of the Regence and the heavy baroque forms preceding it. Also referred to as Louis XV, after the king who ruled France from 1715 to 1774, rococo typified the high style and elegance that had made France the leading influence in design.
The look was light and emphasized minute decorative details that included plant and floral motifs, interlacing shells, C-scrolls and S-scrolls. It also used the cabriole leg and scroll foot. Lavish decorative mounts were of ormolu, bronze, silver and sometimes gold, and sculptured in cupids and other elaborate motifs.
It was a time when the bourgeois (upper class) began building large homes that needed a variety of furniture to fill them. French cabinetmakers were kept busy creating new pieces. Among the most popular were small tables, desks and chairs. There was a piece of furniture for just about every purpose from the chauffeuse (a seating piece to protect against the heat of open fireplaces) to the chaise lounge (an upholstered ad aptation of the day bed, with an elongated seat).
In France, rococo went out of fashion when excavations at Pompeii (1748) and Herculaneum (1738) made classical designs famous.
CLUES: The German cabinetmakers applied a heavier hand to the rococo style, embellishing furniture with marquetry, penwork and painted decorations. Abraham Roentgen and his son David were the exception. Examples of their cabinetry are among the most expensive examples of rococo.
Because Italian cabinetmakers adapted the rococo style before baroque was out of fashion, it is hard to date. Most typical of Italian rococo would be the lacquered and painted bombe commodes, popular in Venice. Other pieces associated with Venice style were the gilded chairs and tables, often with heavily carved motifs. Furniture made in Naples, however, can be recognized by a heavier feeling and the used of walnut and kingwood parquetry, often centered by an eight-pointed star of flowerhead. Furniture made in Sicily used silvering instead of gilding, and floral motifs were painted against pastel backgrounds.
In England, Thomas Chippendale is synonymous with late rococo. His flamboyant designs combined the Chinese (chinoiserie) in carvings and japanned work. Mahogany was the basic wood, but pine was used to carve the delicate Oriental motifs.
Earlier, furniture designers such as Matthias Lock learned about the rococo designs at classes taught at the Academy of St. Martin’s, in London.
American designers adapted the English versions of rococo, as conceived by Chippendale, rather than the French concepts. They created new forms such as the breakfront bookcase and the kneehole chest of drawers. None of the heavily gilded French embellishments were used, and the carving was simplified.
Rococo styles from all countries have never stopped being reproduced. Check for early construction methods. One of several good books on the subject of fakes is Fakes, Fraud, Or Genuine by Myra Kaye, published by Bullfinch.