Design School

The History of Rococo

By Meaghan O’Neill
February 23, 2018

Sinewy curves, comfort, and lots of flair define this era—and make it relevant for current times, too

Known as the Sun King, Louis XIV—king of France from 1643 to 1715—was famous for his flamboyant style and desire for absolute power. In search of the latter, he convinced many aristocratic families to move to his court at Versailles. But as his health failed toward the end of his life, the nobility began to move back into their Parisian mansions. The move begat a psychological shift away from the monarchy and its formalness, and their redecorated Paris homes reflected the sentiment. Gone were the jewel tones and shiny precious metals of the high baroque era. Softer colors, graceful curves, and elegant lines defined the new style, which became known as rococo.

The History of Rococo Image 1

This being the one percent, though, a culture of luxurious living remained. Furnishings and decorative objects were exquisitely carved and highly embellished, featuring sinewy c-scrolls and s-curves. (Think Lumiere, the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast, and most of the castle’s interiors.) Instead of rigid formality and proper events, this new era, ushered in under Louis XV, embraced comfort, privacy, and conversation. Smaller, cozier rooms became the fashion for entertaining, replacing the large parlors and ballrooms of the past.

It was a time of romance, leisure, and seduction. Paintings depicted the delights of daily life, courtly love and romance, and often hinted at sexual encounters. Unlike their serious Baroque predecessors, their subject matter was frequently light-hearted and playful.

They were made in an age when time was not calculated as money. Craftsmen had as much
time as they needed to create something.

While many artworks from the period are still considered masterpieces, the French Rococo (roughly 1700–1760) movement is arguably the moment in history that impacted the future of interior design more than any other. (Predominantly French, the style was also popular in Italy; in England, the similar Palladian and Chippendale looks were in vogue at the same time.) During this time, upholstered furniture, designed for informality and comfort, became the norm. The sofa was also developed then—never before had seating been designed for more than one person. Rococo may have perhaps changed society forever, too—eventually, this new kind of social and intellectual exchange led to the Enlightenment.

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Though political and monarchical systems of Europe and the West have been revolutionized since the mid-18th century, period antiques remain in demand. “Rococo pieces are highly crafted in terms of finish and carving design,” says Lewis Baer, managing principal at Newel, the extensive arts and antiques dealer in New York City. “They were made in an age when time was not calculated as money. Craftsmen had as much time as they needed to create something.”

Unlike an Eames chair, Baer points out, rococo furnishings are very complex with details that can’t be duplicated. This offers designers an edge in contemporary settings, he says, helping them create utterly unique spaces. “They juxtapose so well with the minimal, modernist environment,” says Baer. “Add a couple of gilt armchairs, and you get a lot of personality.” Some designers are even updating rococo pieces with contemporary upholstery, making them as “fresh and relevant” as ever, says Baer. “This is a wonderful way to bring an old piece into a new environment.”

Photograph by Laure Joliet for House of Honey
Photograph by Laure Joliet for House of Honey