“Fauteuil à coiffer” cabriole armchair

Paris, c. 1750-1760
Beech, leather, cane
84 x 60 x 50 cm
Gift of Frederick P. Victoria in memory of his late son, Lieutenant Frederick P. Victoria, 1972
Inv. 43441
© Les Arts Décoratifs

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The seat and back of this armchair are upholstered in cane, an exotic material made of rattan bark. Rattan is a climbing palm that grows in the tropical regions of South-East Asia; its bark is cut into strips of different widths to make cane. To upholster a chair, the strips are passed through holes in the chair frame and criss-crossed to form a fine mesh. The Dutch, who ruled the East Indies, dominated the importation of cane into Europe, where the caning technique was introduced in the second half of the seventeenth century; its use in France was delayed by incessant wars between Louis XIV’s France and the Dutch Republic. In 1724, in his Dictionnaire universel du commerce, Savary des Brûlons wrote, “the cane furniture that is so greatly used and traded in England and Holland […] is beginning to arrive in France.” The inclusion of this new material in the production of seats was naturally entrusted to the guild of vanniers quincailliers (basket makers and ironmongers), which came to include the new profession of caner. Cane was more elegant than the straw or sedge that were used for ordinary seats; it could be used to create upholstery that was light yet sturdy, and far less expensive than fabric or leather. This kind of chair, with its freshness and lightness, was particularly suited to tropical climates such as that of the East Indies. In Europe, it began to be used in furniture pieces for dining rooms and for the garde-robes that preceded bathrooms. As cane is water and stain resistant and easier to maintain than fabric or leather, it was particularly popular for toilet furniture. The armpads (manchettes) are the only parts of this chair that are upholstered in leather, for reasons of comfort. The fauteuil de toilette (dressing chair), mainly used for hairdressing, is characterized by a dip at the top of the chair back which made it easier to put the sitter’s wig in place. The carpenter who made this piece (who unfortunately did not stamp his work) skillfully disguised the dip by giving the chair back a heart shape, echoed by the shape of the seat; he thereby created an original (and rarely copied) design because of what was essentially a practical constraint. We know of a few other heart-shaped dressing chairs featuring slight variations in the join between the seat and back – in the form of two solid panels on this chair, and of the tip of the heart on others – but the only stamped heart-shaped seat is a bergère armchair by the carpenter Antoine Bonnemain, who became a master in 1753.

B. R. The Master Chair-Maker’s Art. France 1710-1800, Frederick P. Victoria and Son, Inc., New York, 1984, no. 15.

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