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The Evolution of Rococo

Today’s guest blogger is DAS member Sheri Conner. Sheri is an interior designer who teaches history of furniture and other courses for the Art Institute Online Division’s Interior Design program.

How did we get from this …

Fig: 1, Nicolas Heurtaut, 1755, Suite of four fauteuils à la reine (flat-back armchairs) © 1994 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/set-four-fauteuil-la-reine-armchairs

Fig: 1, Nicolas Heurtaut, 1755, Suite of four fauteuils à la reine (flat-back armchairs)
© 1994 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

… to this …

Fig. 2, John Belter (American), “Armchair,” 1855 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. C. Harvey Bradley, 80.482

Fig. 2, John Belter (American), “Armchair,” 1855
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. C. Harvey Bradley, 80.482

… to this?!

Fig. 3, Alessandro Mendini (Italian, b. 1931), “Poltrona di Proust” lounge chair, 1978 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Robertine Daniels Art Fund in Memory of Her Late Husband, Richard Monroe Fairbanks Sr. and Her Late Son, Michael Fairbanks, 2013.15 © Alessandro Mendini

Fig. 3, Alessandro Mendini (Italian, b. 1931), “Poltrona di Proust” lounge chair, 1978
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Robertine Daniels Art Fund in Memory of Her Late Husband, Richard Monroe Fairbanks Sr. and Her Late Son, Michael Fairbanks, 2013.15
© Alessandro Mendini

And what the heck does THIS have to do with it???

Fig. 4, François Boucher (French, 1703-1770), “Idyllic Landscape with Woman Fishing,” 1761 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herman C. Krannert, 60.248

Fig. 4, François Boucher (French, 1703-1770), “Idyllic Landscape with Woman Fishing,” 1761
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herman C. Krannert, 60.248

Rococo style originated in Paris during the reign of King Louis XV. Upon the death of his great-grandfather Louis XIV, the Regent temporarily relocated the aristocratic center from the palace of Versailles to Paris. The new court quarters consisted of townhomes and apartments, creating a need for smaller scaled furnishings. In her book, The Annotated Mona Lisa, Carol Strickland describes the period as, “… a shift in French art and society from the serious and grandiose to the frothy and superficial,” noting that, “… the nobility lived a frivolous existence devoted to pleasure.” Décor took on a light appearance in terms of scale, color and ornamentation to fit with the intimate interiors and care-free lifestyle. Other European countries and the U.S. had their own interpretations of Rococo style.

The name Rococo derives from the French rocaille, which means shell. Rococo style is primarily associated with the decorative arts; however, painters of the time embraced it wholeheartedly. François Boucher for example, was commissioned to paint large-scale bucolic scenes consisting of rosy-cheeked goddesses and putti frolicking in lush gardens and pastoral landscapes (fig. 4). These themes were also translated into furniture design (fig 1). Rococo art and design has been described as romantic, idyllic, curvaceous, naturalistic, and asymmetrical.

Rococo styled seating and case pieces were curvilinear and visually delicate. Carved shells, flowers and botanical forms, scrolls, fruit, cherubs, and serpentine lines are all distinctive features of Rococo furniture. The cabriole leg is highly indicative of Rococo style, often terminating in scrolled, or claw and ball feet. Upon discovery of the ruins of Pompeii, Rococo design fell out of style giving way to the Neoclassic period.

Fast forward 100 years. Rococo is revived! Nineteenth century Rococo Revival furniture is larger, heavier, darker, more symmetrical and heavily carved. Industrial techniques were employed such as mechanical carving, coil springs for comfort, and new methods for laminating and bending wood. Original Rococo furniture was only available to royalty and the wealthy elite. This, along with the affordability rendered by mass production, made the revival version popular among the rising middle class during Victoria’s reign in England.

Pamela Wiggins asserted in her article, Who Was John Henry Belter?, “When it comes to Rococo Revival furniture, John Henry Belter (fig. 2) was no doubt the master craftsman working in the mid-1800s.” He is known for innovations in lamination and carving, securing patents for several techniques and mechanisms related to furniture manufacturing. Belter brought high furniture design to the U.S.; finally we were on par with Europe! Often imitated by his contemporaries, Belter destroyed plans and molds of his furniture so it would be very difficult to duplicate after his death.

Time ticked on … design along with it. Between the wars, furniture designers created radical revolutionary objects for the purpose of mass production. The Modernist Tradition led contemporary design into the later decades of the 2oth century. It viewed design as industry. Stemming from the Bauhaus’ early rejection of historic forms and ornamentation, designers working in the Modern mode embraced geometric forms and new materials like tubular steel and plastic. Form was ever ruled by function.

Along came the Italian design groups Alchemia and Memphis, who promoted a design-as-art ideal in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Based on this new Postmodern approach, design welcomed a decorative, historicizing tradition. Function was secondary. Manufacturers began to hire international designers who were raised to the level of superstars. People like Alessandro Mendini (fig. 3) viewed themselves as “non-designers,” creating personas and brands identifiable as their own style.

Handmade, one-of-a-kind, limited editions replaced mass production. Common recognizable forms and historic styles were resurrected in new and exaggerated ways marked by pattern, ornament, rich color, and luxury. Flexibility and range of materials allowed new sculptural possibilities for furniture. Postmodernist designers in a sense, mined history to conceive works like Mendini’s Proust armchair. Can you see it gestating in Boucher’s idyllic landscape?

Filed under: Art, Contemporary, Design, Guest Bloggers

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