How dead French kings can help you take a load off

Once upon a time, way before the years of American history you were supposed to have memorized in high school, there was the kingdom of France. And the kings of France were a very busy lot. Life was full of responsibilities, such as waging wars against their neighbors, scooping up colonial land wherever it was found and trying not to anger their hungry subjects while they bankrupted the country for some extra jewelry. You can spend a lifetime just learning about all those kings and how they spent their time.

Image courtesy of

We’re not doing that here today.

Today, we’re only going to care about their home life as furniture style makers. These kings of France were the A-list celebrities of their day, living in the most fashionably famous country in Europe. Wealth denoted power and it was to be flaunted. If the king had something stylish in the palace, er…palaces, everyone else wanted one just like it.

This offers us a unique opportunity to see the evolution of the chair as a nation’s everyday lifestyles and needs changed. Clothing fashions changed dramatically, affecting how you physically sit in a chair. Rooms in the home changed, too, becoming much less formal. Everyone’s furniture had to adapt or it was swapped for something better, just like we do today in our homes.

Think of this post as a history version of my Real Living post. Here is a cheat sheet of knowledge for real life: a little trivia to remember Mr. Divine-Right and how his chair evolved from the kings before him.


Royal guy: Born in 1601; became king at age 9;  married once; contemporary references suggest he may have been gay; was succeeded by his son, Louis XIV

Dead from: Tuberculosis, at 42 (1643)

Chair: Severely square profile; upright, square back with fabric stretched over frame; square seat; open arms; minimal upholstery; fabric often finished with visible nailheads; stretchers connect all four legs for stability; barley twist carved pattern on arms, legs and  stretchers

Dead giveaway characteristic: The simple, yet severely square profile


Royal Guy: Born in 1638; became king at age 5; married twice; several public mistresses; many children from wives and mistresses; great patron of design; converted his father’s old hunting lodge into the Palace of Versailles (see picture at top of post); was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV, because all other heirs between them had died from small pox

Dead from: Old age, at 76 (1715)

Chair: Square seat; tall rectangular back; made with heavy woods which added weight to chair; open, curved arms; modified cabriole leg; stretchers connect all four legs for stability; gilded and carved wood frame; upholstered seat and back, commonly in dark green, red or blue heavy weight fabric

Dead giveaway characteristic: Heavy chair weight; big, rectangular back


Royal Guy: Born 1710; became king at age 5; married once; several public mistresses; many children from wife and mistresses; great patron of the arts; survived an assignation attempt; succeeded by his grandson, Louis XVI

Dead from: small pox, at age 63 (1774)

Chair: Smaller overall proportions; seat and back shapes no longer follow straight lines; back of chair now reclines at a significant angle; open, curved and now padded arms; cabriole legs; carved and gilded frame with rococo shell motifs; brighter colored and patterned upholstery fabric

Dead giveaway characteristic: Gilded Rococo motifs covering frame


Royal Guy: Born in 1754; became king at age 20; married at age fifteen to Marie Antoinette; several children; removed from throne and convicted of high treason during the French Revolution; only king of France ever to be executed; no successors due to monarchy abolition

 Dead from: the Guillotine, at age 39 (1793)

Chair: Overall proportions become smaller, almost dainty; chair is easy to move; straight, tapering legs with fluting; simple carved mahogany frame, although frame is very often painted; fabric patterns lean toward pastoral motifs; fabric colors shift to neutrals or pastels

Dead giveaway characteristic: Those delicately tapered legs

Do you like any of these antique chairs? Finding an original Louis chair, from any reign, is quite a feat these days. Many of them are found in fine museums because they were so groundbreaking in their own time. However, if you really like the style, there is another option:

This is the Louis Ghost Chair, by French designer Philippe Starck for Kartell. It is a beautiful piece that is already a design classic in its own right, and it is much cheaper than an original Louis chair. Since you now know a little about original Louis chair history, can you see the French ancestors in this chair’s profile?

The Louis Ghost Chair is made from one solid piece of molded clear polycarbonate, translation: industrial grade plastic. You can use it indoors or outdoors. (Try doing that with an antique Louis chair!) It is oh-so-light to lift and remarkably comfortable to sit in for long stretches. It makes a lovely desk, dining or accent chair.

Because it is clear, it is great for smaller spaces, allowing light to pass through the chair to give the feel of more spaciousness. It is also great for adding a little sparkle and modern to a room, as you can see below:

If the simple clear aspect of this chair isn’t quite your thing, consider another shade of clear:

Or maybe an opaque one?

Now it’s your turn! Tell me what you like and dislike about all of these chairs named Louis. Do you prefer the antiques? Has the modern version made you reconsider what “modern” can mean? Where would you use one of the Louis Ghost chairs in your home?

All portrait images in this post are courtesy of Wikipedia and some very talented, but long dead, painting masters.  The chair images are courtesy of, The Abrams Guide to Period Styles for Interiors, and House Beautiful.

Posted on April 19, 2011, in Design Vocabulary, Furniture. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Cool Chairs! I have a chair of French ancestory design in my living room. Who knew!

  2. I’m not sure I could get away with any of the original Louis chairs, either for the price or the style, but I like the ghost chair. I’ve seen the clear ones, but I’ve never seen a black one. I could go for one of those if the price was right. Great history lesson!

  3. I never really understood the differemces between the Louis’ when it came to furniture. Louis Quinze or Quatorze? Who knew? Now I know who to thank for a “modern” (that is, classic)and comfortable design, Louis XVI. Again, who knew?!

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