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History and Unique Nature of Empire-Style Furniture


Empire-style furniture refers to furniture created during the period of Napoleon Boneparte’s reign in France. Napoleon seemed to be obsessed with making the greatness of France known, and that obsession is evident even within the furniture pieces that were created under his rule.

History of the French Empire

The French Empire refers to a short period when Napoleon ruled as Emporer over France, between the years 1804 and 1814. France’s military expanded during his reign, and France was subjected to constant warfare. Napoleon Bonaparte managed to overtake many of Europe’s nations and territories within a decade. Led by a totalitarian government, French citizens lost some freedoms but experienced advances in religious tolerance, public education, etc.

The totalitarian government extended its reach to furniture manufacturing; the furniture crafted under Napoleon’s rule had to meet certain requirements to make sure it properly showed the greatness of the French Empire. Massive elements were often included, and before long, the style spread across Europe and eventually to the American colonies. The Empire furniture style is often treated as a development of the Neoclassical period, which arose in the latter half of the 18th century. Empire-style furniture has some unique characteristics that make it easy to identify, including size, geometric forms, Roman and Egyptian motifs, and the letter “N.”

Characteristics of Empire Furniture

The most noticeable aspect of Empire-style furniture is often its size. Remember: Napoleon wanted to communicate the greatness of France through his furniture, so pieces were often so large that they were imposing. They also included decorative elements designed to almost stop people in their tracks because of how stunning and glorious they were.

Instead of featuring curves and soft elements, Empire furniture often featured rigid forms, flat surfaces, and sharp corners. Everything tended to be symmetrical, with design elements mirroring each other on either side of the piece. Most of the inspiration for Empire furniture’s designs came from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Napoleon admired the apparent lack of complications that these cultures were known for, and he wanted to model his Empire after them.

The motifs used in Empire-style furniture were inspired by war and the ancient cultures he so admired. Often, you can find spires, coats of arms, lions, eagles, Roman/Grecian deities, sphinxes, and palm leaves carved within the details of Empire furniture. One of the more unique elements of Napoleon’s furniture was the appearance of the letter “N,” often surrounded by laurel leaves, which were considered symbols of glory and victory. Laurel leaves are one of the more popular motifs used in Napoleon’s furniture because of the message they convey.

Which Woods Were Used?

Originally, French furniture makers exclusively used mahogany to craft Empire-style pieces, but as Napoleon lost more and more friends across the continent, these furniture makers had to turn to locally sourced woods instead. Some of these choices included maple, walnut, and beech. While exotic woods were still shipped in from French colonies, they were considered scarce and only used for small projects, like veneers or detailings.

Unsurprisingly, a gilded finish became popular in furniture created under Napoleon’s rule. Pieces looked like they were made out of gold, covered in golden leaves that made people forget that the furniture was crafted out of common, ordinary, locally sourced woods. The legs of dining room tables and chairs were specially decorated this way, helping them seem grander and more imposing than they were on their own.

Gold wasn’t the only material used to make ordinary pieces of furniture seem more impressive: marble was often incorporated into the tops of cabinets and tables to help them feel massive and magnificent. As far as upholstered details go, Napoleon often requested stately blue and red tones featuring golden elements.

One of the most popular furniture pieces from the French Empire is the small, three-legged table. More often than not, the tables themselves resembled small sculptures, the tops being decorated with either inlays or marble. Special pieces may have also featured the face of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Boat beds, which resembled massive couches and came from a strong Roman influence, were also very popular.

The End of the Empire

The French Empire came to an end in 1814, when the monarchy was re-established, and Napoleon’s rule ended. Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France with an iron fist, and his influence reached not only other nations within the European continent but also the creation of the arts within France itself. The Empire style was designed to proclaim the greatness of France and Napoleon himself; it was built to be large and imposing, featuring golden details and motifs to remind people of Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and war. Empire-style furniture is very recognizable, even hundreds of years later, which Napoleon would probably be pleased to know.

We hope this article has been informative and that you’ve learned a bit about the French Empire today.

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