The quintessential French appreciation for beauty and fine art has often been perceived as overly formal. However, the move towards French style shows a recognition that some of the rich shapes are actually imbued with a lightness that adds to the casual elegance we strive for.
Australians have an enduring love of beautiful homes and quality design. In terms of furniture, French antiques are unparalleled in the world, so it’s not entirely surprising to find this home, which is exquisitely decorated in formal French style, hidden away in the heart of Sydney.
The family who lives here loves combining beautiful French antiques with some of the best Australian painters. It clearly demonstrates that French refinement and the Australian sense of space and directness can live in the same room. Stepping inside is like taking a trip back in time to 18th century France at the height of the Louis XV and Louis XVI periods. Interior designer Jean-Christophe Burckhardt has worked with the owners for more than 10 years, custom-making and designing reproduction furniture to complement their extensive collection
Throughout the home, the delicate motifs of Limoges porcelain pieces rest upon intricately carved cabinets while classical paintings line the walls. In the dining room, an authentic Louis XVI setting captures the ornate marquetry that defines much of the furniture of this period.
“If you look at these pieces,” explains Jean-Christophe, “they’re actually veneer — those were the early days of inlay and marquetry. The veneers then were thicker than they are now. To create this pictorial inlay they used a large variety of imported and local timbers.”
Many pieces within the home have a story that stretches from one of the most artistic and opulent periods in French history, to present-day Australia. The sense of occasion that this creates within the home is met with an appreciation for the commitment required in sourcing and bringing the pieces together. The time invested in the design is evident in a bed which the owners recently had custom-made by Jean-Christophe.
“People were quite short in the 18th century,” he explains, “so the antique beds are generally small. The owners wanted a usable bed that matched the design of the Louis Bergère chairs they had.”
Creating this bed involved matching the design, carving and finishing exactly to that of the chairs. The piece took around six months to create and is water
gilded, which is a laborious process by which carving is covered with a preparation of gesso, a heated mixture of glue, whiting (chalk) and water. This is done in many layers and the carved details are carved over again.
Next, three or four coats of bole are added, a very fine particle clay combined with rabbit skin glue and water. The surface is then dabbed with gilder’s liquor, a solution of water, alcohol and rabbit skin glue. The thin 24-carat gold leaf is applied and burnished with a specially shaped agate stone. As the bole is reddish it gives the gold leaf beautiful warmth and sometimes is allowed to show through a little.
To complement the bed, a pair of bedside tables was made featuring fronts that dish out like a belly in the traditional Louis bombe style. Carrara marble was set on top and a handle on each side pulls out to provide a place to rest a book.
“This piece is very much in the Louis 15th tradition,” Jean-Christophe explains. “They’re made in kingswood veneers and rosewoods. All the brassware was cast in Paris in an exact reproduction of the Louis 15th style.”
There are some elements of the home, however, that transport the mood from the 18th century into a more contemporary, experimental context. One such aspect is the extraordinary stairwell, which winds its way between levels wrapped in a 1920s-style leadlight design and allows light in from outside. Here, the rigidity of traditional style gives way to an Art Nouveau aesthetic that brightens the home.
The stairwell is just one feature of the interior which demonstrates that, though the home’s overall style is evidently very formal, formality is not its focus. Above all, the residence reflects its owners’ commitment to the guardianship of beautiful, high-quality, historic objects. The fact that they are lived and interacted with keeps the pieces alive, though their use and adaptation will retain the beauty and artistry of their origins.
Louis XV — 1723-1774
The reign of Louis XV marked a period of peace and prosperity in France. At the time, the Enlightenment was in full swing, the king its greatest supporter. Women became more powerful during this period with the dawn of their successful intellectual salons. As a result, their influence was felt in the court. Feminine forms became much more popular, like the roll-top desk which was found in Louis XV’s room at Versailles.
Pieces with hidden compartments and secret drawers also became popular and nature motifs were an important part of the decorations and carvings. With Louis XV furniture, the asymmetry and heavy ornamentation of the preceding Regence period was made even more lavish through the use of extravagant wood veneers and marquetry. All kinds of lacquers and hand painting were also important, especially Oriental lacquers and anything done by the innovators in the field, the Martin brothers.
Louis XVI — 1774-1792
In 1748, the discovery of the ancient city of Pompeii caused a resurgence of the popularity of Greco-Roman antiquities. At the same time, nature motifs were carried over from the Louis XV period. The resulting style is known as neo-classicism.
In the Louis XVI style, intricate marquetry and floral designs were banded by geometric trims and circumscribed by oval or round medallions. Sculptures of animals such as the eagle, the dolphin or a ram’s head were also common. But the feminine proportions were still popular, as evidenced by the new dainty writing desks with ornately carved legs. This was also the first time when chairs were created strictly for ornamental purposes. The seats were trapezoidal and the backs were designed with lyre, vases and flowers.