A French immunologist by the name of Jacques Benveniste devoted a large part of his life’s research and career to proving a theory; that under certain circumstances water can retain a ‘memory’ of substances previously dissolved in it. The theory was widely rejected as there is little solid scientific evidence to support his claims but it leaves an interesting question open to thought; what if objects could in fact contain a memory, and more specifically what if furniture could.
Furniture like many things in life is subject to personal opinion and taste, what one finds beautiful and stunning another could easily find boring and an eye sore. This ying and yang of opinion keeps life interesting, but when it comes to Rococo furniture there is something there to me that transcends an aesthetic opinion on simply how it looks. There is a history there that even haters of the style must respect, this is a design and style that has endured hundreds of years of change and when you look at the elaborate and lavish motifs of a Rococo piece it screams out to you the memories of regal and elegant royalty that were instrumental in its creation.
The actual word Rococo is seen to be a combination of two French words; rocaille meaning stone and coquilles meaning shell. Both feature prominently in classic Rococo design alongside motifs inspired by music, nature and love. As Baroque artists in the 18th century started to rely less on symmetry and became more ornate and playful, this freedom and incorporation of nature and rocaille and coquilles helped to create this distinct style we know today.
In this period when the Baroque artists were beginning to fully discover the great creativity that can come from artistic freedoms, not sticking to any preconceived rules that everything must be symmetrical, being experimental and florid, creating entire rooms as works of art not just one piece…It led to what many consider to be the Golden Age of French furniture. The Rococo style was frivolous and decadent; it gave us new items like the chaise longue and the bergere chair, but in many ways would eventually slip into a similar story of the reigning King during this period, Louis XV.
The frivolous and decadence nature of the style were part of its key to success in the beginning, but towards the end of Louis XV’s reign in 1774 had become its downfall. Eventually becoming too lavish and extravagant with zero symmetry it had perhaps imposed its own new set of rules on itself and lost site on the artistic creativity and freedom that had made it so unique and special. This classic story of rise and fall, a blaze of glory to the slow fade out, it goes hand in hand with Louis XV and becomes a vital detail to this corner of history that produced Rococo furniture.
Beginning his reign in 1715 Louis XV enjoyed a favourable reputation in the early years and would even earn himself the title le Bien-Aimé; the Beloved. His disinterest in politics and a heavy influence from his chief mistress Madame de Pompadour however would lead to a slow decline. Debauchery of his court, poor financial policies, the cession of New France, merely but a few of the unpopular decisions that turned Louis XV from the beloved into one of the most hated Kings that would have an assassination attempt on his life in 1757. Much like the Rococo, frivolous and decadent would be key to both success and decline.
Correlation in their failing’s aside Louis XV is a vital part of the story because it is his reign that allowed for such a loose and playful freedom in the creativity. Their similarities in personality are intertwined and will forever go down in history; the 1835 Dictionary of French Academy notes that Rococo “usually covers the kind of ornament, style and design associated with Louis XV’s reign and the beginning of that of Louis XVI”.
This vast story and history behind antique French furniture such as Rococo exists, a memory within the fabric and the wood that although can’t be proven scientifically it exists somehow. The hand carved detailing whether you appreciate the aesthetics or not, behind it is this story of ups and downs, triumphs and failure, Kings and artists, there is no grand tale to be told about composite wood furniture that came off a production line and to me this is what makes Rococo something special; ornate and illustrious.