Like French cuisine, French furniture continues to have considerable cachet. Louis XIV, Regence, Directoire, Restoration: French furniture styles down through the ages have stood the test of time, and still bring their elegance and beauty to the homes of today, either as antiques are as antique reproductions.
The evolution of furniture is a part of French history. In fact, more than that, it is French history.
Many years ago, I took a course in Earth Science. Naturally, we had a textbook. And reading assignments from the school library, which housed many volumes on the subject.
But the Professor took us on a field trip to view a shear rock cliff carved by time into a steep, striated wall that rose some twenty or more feet almost straight up from the ground.
Layer by layer, he pointed out to us what had occurred on the face of this planet over millennia. One layer showed an era when the earth was covered by the sea. Another described a time when now-extinct animals roamed the earth. The very history of the planet was inscribed in the striations of that rock.
Nothing ever written by man, not one sentence in all those volumes in all the libraries in all the world, could have conveyed the history of the earth as eloquently or as explicitly as that naked wall of rock.
So it is with French furniture.
Today, you can wander through the Court of Versailles and live again the incredible opulence that surrounded the Sun King. The intricate marquetry, the heavy carvings, the gold leaf decorations of scalloped shells, lions and, of course, rays of sun, evoke an age when aristocracy reveled in itself, and made no apology for its indulgences.
But it reflects, too, an age when the government evidenced an appreciation of the arts. The reign of Louis XIV saw the establishment of departments for architecture, painting, landscape design, and, of course, furniture making.
How different from the Medieval days when crime was rampant, and furniture was made of heavy French oak to discourage thieves! They might have been discouraged, too, by the deep hand carving done in the style of the churches and cathedrals of the day.
The Renaissance was, in its turn, influenced by the discovery of Greek and Roman antiquities. French furniture began to resemble Roman and Greek temples and coliseums complete with architectural columns and balustrades.
The influence of women, who began to gain some power with their intellectual salons during the Enlightenment, was reflected in a more feminine style of furniture, with the romance of hidden compartments and secret drawers.
After the French Revolution, the more subdued Directoire style was a visual denouncement of the flamboyance of the now-hated monarchy. And the emergence of Egyptian motifs told the story of Napoleon's bloody and ill-fated Egyptian campaign.
With the return of the monarchy in the person of Charles X came the return of unapologetic opulence. Woods were lighter, with musical instruments carved into the legs, or with marquetry flowers, garlands and rosettes.
But then, after Louis Phillipe came another revolution: the Industrial Revolution. And the wonderful handcrafted individual pieces of the past gave way to 'sets' - bedroom sets, dining room sets, and so forth - that remain staples of today.
Handcrafting. Mass production. What will follow? Whatever it may be, it will all fade into history, as must everything of this earth. And all of it will be written down, and stored on shelves in libraries. And, now, in computers. And whatever may follow computers.
But just as with that shear face of rock, no written word, however it may be preserved, will ever evoke the life of those eras past as can a massive armoire carved with the faces of angels, a dainty writing desk with its secret compartment, or bold architectural pieces adorned with sphinxes, griffins and eagles.
They are not reflections of history. They are not recordings of history. They are history itself.
Gregory Kerwin, raised in a world of antiques in his grandmother's houses in Paris and Southern France, has spent the decades since accumulating more beautiful and unusual things, still mostly French. You can find them at http://tkcollections.com/