The French are known for their artistic flair and theme. French empire furniture themes represent a classic example of both their look and creative tendencies.
French empire furniture themes followed the first stage of Neoclassicism or the theme known as "Louis XVI" in France. It began in the early 19th century and was named after Napoleon's rule of France, which was called the First French Empire. Empire furniture themes were found in other countries as well, and they all derived their name from this same reference. However, it was in France that the Empire furniture theme really gained prominence.
The theme was created to showcase both Napoleon and the growing influence of France throughout the world. This theme was not only aesthetically pleasing, but actually became a state-sponsored design that not only influenced furniture designers, but architects and artists as well.
French empire furniture themes rely heavily on symbols and ornamental design. It uses many of the same designs that were used in ancient Greece and Rome. One of its most famous uses is in the Blue Room of the White House. This room was done in French Empire theme, and looks similar to how it did prior to the burning of the White House by the British in 1814. When President Monroe ordered the French empire theme furniture, he ordered mahogany pieces. However, the company sent gilded pieces, which they believed were more appropriate. Some of these original pieces remain in the room today.
One interesting thing to note about French Empire furniture themes is the use of the letter "N" throughout the design. This, of course, is in tribute to Napoleon. The theme is very classical. Supports are often done in a scroll or column design. Some of the symbols found in this design are wreaths, eagles, torches, the Sphinx, and honeysuckle. There is a distinct Egyptian influence to these pieces as well. Mahogany was the wood of choice in this design, and it often was embellished with brass inlays. Wood was usually covered with veneer.
French empire furniture themes look best in more formal settings due to their ornate nature. Colors are typically bold, with use of reds, blacks, and golds throughout. These pieces can make an attractive addition to a library or study. They go well in formal living rooms and dining rooms. Those who prefer a more casual environment will usually find this theme to be too fussy. One possible solution is to consider an American Empire piece, which combines many of the features which make French Empire furniture attractive, but in a way that is more functional and durable.