Your Guide To Empire Furniture And Decorating

The Empire Style was a style around the time period of 1804-1815. The Empire style was propaganda for the Emperor Napoléon I where he was able to present an image that sent off a message of power.

Massive Style – One key to empire style is a look that is noble and massive. Its imposing presence gives the appearance of being wealthy, and well to do. Surfaces of the furniture are flat and the corners are sharp. Smaller pieces of furniture for specific purposes became more rare.   Many of the Empire Chests are grand and well ornamented.  Often they feature the most stunning wood veneers which attracts most people to the empire looks. The Empire style is certainly very regal and sophisticated.


Powerful Empire Sofas

Mike Bell featured this lovely Empire style canape in an unusual dazzling pink fabric. Mike Bell Antiques are known for their period furniture, reproductions and prestigious antiques.

What is a canape anyway? 

Its shape is distinct from other sofas of the period, including the chaise longue, and is a variation on the “sofa”.  Frequently matching chairs were made to go with it.  A canapé is a piece of furniture much the same as a couch or a settee.

What is a settee exactly? 

A Settee has been described as a long wooden bench with a back, and other dictionaries describe it as a small to medium sized couch.  Are you confused yet?  You should be.


Then came  Thomas Chippendale who was one of the first to feature patterns for furniture that had padded arm rests and backs and comfortable cushioned seats with the beautiful frames still being visible.  In 1828, springs were introduced into furniture, where they were originated for the seats in carriages to minimize the bumpy rides.  Empire furniture combined the functionality but were highly decorative.  Empire furniture often features rich motifs and carved details.  They are some of the nicest furniture in history.  The heavy masculine frames looked wealthy and were accented with lavish carved details.  But it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that upholstered furniture became common to every household. The modern day couch evolved from the settee.  Fully upholstered settees made for middle-class families only were brought to the market not that long ago in the early 1920s.

Not only do we see supreme quality with Empire furniture, but the overall size was robust, wealthy and glamorous. Upholstered furniture was once a symbol of wealth and affluence.  We don’t see the decoration on furniture as it was once was made for show.  Having Empire furniture in ones home is still an indulgence in the best that  luxury has to offer.

Empire Furniture

House Beautiful featured an exceptional Empire Chair in their September 2010 issue.  The room featured Benjamin Moore’s Misty Lilac painted walls, and a lovely wood desk with world-class antique Empire chair.  Although purples are not a common color with Empire furniture, House Beautiful shows that it works!  The picture was featured in their paint section without a credit to the original designer.  The paint finish features a cream finish with a lovely antique patina.  The details were finished in gold which shows off the remarkable frame.  This shows us that we should think out of the box when it comes to color.

Empire Furniture

Mahogany was often the wood of choice during 1804-1815. Either blond, dark, moiré, figured, or flame wood is found to be the prime choice when it came to furniture. It is interesting to note that after 1810, mahogany became unavailable because of the continental blockade and furniture makers were forced to use walnut, burled elm, beech, ash, boxwood, olivewood, maple, and rarely citronnier.

Complex marquetry disappeared and was replaced by discreet inlay ornament. Fillets of blond wood, copper or steel were set into dark wood. Bronze fittings were the only ornaments on furniture. You will find on Empire Furniture the ornaments are often placed symmetrically on flat surfaces, as most empire styles are are entirely symmetrical in composition. The motifs on a piece’s right and left generally correspond to one another in every detail. Marble tops are another element to the empire style and have found to have sharp corners and are most often gray or black.

Empire Furniture

Empire Chest – Ad Lib Antiques, Empire CommodePaul Klienwald Art and Antiques

For more than a thousand years, the ancient Romans, Greeks had an eye for highly sophisticated architectural and decorative art forms that are widely admired today. Amazing frescoes, and stunning mosaics have been found in the ruins at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and in Rome itself. The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 1800s had a huge impact on the decoration of various palaces in Naples, Venice and Milan. The ancient styles of stone, and marble, and outstanding art is often the key elements to these ancient styles.

The key to this decorating style is layering ornate details. Any person would be daunted with where to begin such a complex style, and where you want to begin is with one element that you love. Possibly you have a floor tile you are working in your design or it may be a particular vase you have been holding on to. Begin with one element and draw inspiration from that element with supportive colors and design in other pieces. You want to begin designing the bare room without the furnishings. Consider a pattern on the floors, and possibly some faux work on the walls. A stone, or venetian plaster would be fabulous. If you have a complex mural in mind, consider purchasing a overhead projector for a complex pattern you can trace and paint on the walls. The second stage of decorating your room is adding the furnishings, the vases, the throw pillows and the overall furniture to the room. Adding patterns in your fabrics will pull together your entire room. The key is to work in your favorite colors, and it is guaranteed to work.

Empire Furniture

 Mary McDonald, Interior Design by Laura Hunt Prints

Austrian Biedermeier Curule Mahogany Bench. Circa 1820 Seller Florian Papp

The Curule chair came about in Etruria (referred to in Greek texts as Tyrrhenia , now known as Tuscany) and was found on surviving Etruscan monuments to identify magistrates.

Much earlier stools that were supported on a cross-frame are known from the New Kingdom of Egypt. Curule chairs were designed for the officials of the highest government dignitaries. It was originally made of ivory, without arms and it was usually inlaid with ivory and precious metals. It served a seat for the positioned in power, and later the emperor himself.

Today re-makes of these chairs can be seen in Restoration Hardware.  Some of the best places to find these chairs are 1st dibs, and Ebay.  They are often showcased in larger scale bathrooms, centered in living rooms, and used at the end of beds.  These chairs are some of the most expensive chairs around.

Swedish Neo-classical Painted & Gilded Settee Seller Antiquario Villas & Cottages

Swedish Neo-classical Painted & Gilded Settee Seller Antiquario Villas & Cottages

A pair of painted bergeres Seller Daniel Barney

A pair of painted bergeres Seller Daniel Barney

Finding great antique furniture can be costly and rare to find, so often times when a reproduction furniture piece comes along that I can fix up to look like the real thing.  Use  appliques to dress up your vintage and antique furniture. Paint can also go a long way.

Hardware can make a great piece of furniture even more spectacular. Ormolu are often featured on Empire furniture.  These decorations are gilt-metal decorations that are nailed on to the furniture. Today you can also purchase molds that you can reuse with plaster of Paris or concrete. Reproducing the Neoclassical looks of Robert Adam can be attainable when using laurel wreaths, rosettes and bell flowers embellishments.  They are often my choice when I am dressing up chairs, beds and chests. They are well worth the investment.

Empire Furniture has a very masculine look with a tremendous amount of details. Todays furniture does not often feature the exquisite exotic woods of the empire furniture. If you love the Greek and Roman decorating styles, empire furniture is right up your alley. With most modern furniture there is more to be desired than a plain piece of furniture. Empire styles combine the classical brass motifs giving you the interest in the ornate details but also the modern masculine clean lines in one furniture piece. Today nothing compares to the noble and exquisite looks of the empire period. Many furniture manufactures produce furniture in mass quantities, and often don’t spend the time in the details. With empire furniture you often get the best wood, the best ornate hardware, hand carved designs, and ornate gold gilding, which adds up to a furniture piece being a piece of art than just a regular side table.


Empire Furniture


Empire Style was a result of Napoleon’s reign in 1769 through 1821. It was the second phase of neoclassicism (which is also called “Directoire”) which is simply a style engaged by the government during that time.

The Empire style furniture is usually massive in scale and often has very severe look to the furniture, resulting in a heavy masculine look . Previous furniture styles (before this time) were slowly moving away from the heavy ornamented furniture to more simpler lines.

Gradual change became apparent with simpler looks, but they still employed some intricate detail in the hardware. The Empire style often features the best wood veneers with metal gilts that adorn the furniture, leaving some fancy detail to balance out the sharp shapes of the furniture. The Empire look satisfied the best of both worlds,- being that of some fancy ornate detail; simple shapes, and outstanding wood detail.

Empire Furniture

Row 1 Empire Stool By March, PAIR French Empire Bronze Urns. Circa 1840 Seller Florian Papp, Pair of Consulat Period Cassolettes Seller Bagatelle

Row 2 Russian Empire Parcel-gilt and Mahogany Chairs Seller East & Orient Company, Granite Top Bronze Gueridon Table Seller Greenwich Living, 12-Candle Empire Chandelier  Bermingham & Co

Row 3 Empire Style Parcel Gilt Inlaid Dinner Table Seller Marcia Sherrill At Roland Antiques, Empire Drop Leaf Table Seller East & Orient Company, Empire Candelabras Seller Sutter Antiques

Row 4 Urn Seller Empire Antiques, PAIR of Bronzed Urns on Marble Pedestals Seller Fireside Antiques, Russian Empire Side Chairs Seller Marcoz

Empire Furniture

Verninac-David, Elisabeth Stroganoff


Symbols of Power is a comprehensive look at Napoleon’s majestic Empire Style. No other ruler in the history of the world has been more aware of the capacity of symbolism to propagate power than Napoleon I.  To present an image of power he supported programs of arts that proclaimed France the New Rome.

Symbols of Power contains superb photographs, many taken expressly for this volume, exhibit gorgeous objects decorated with a wealth of antique motifs—columns, arches, laurel wreathes, acanthus leaves, eagles, Egyptian hieroglyphs—created by master French furniture-makers, silversmiths, jewelers, and porcelain and textile manufacturers. Figures of Fame and Victory abound, and furniture, vases, porcelains, and even silverware display an antique style that projects the aura of imperial majesty.

Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815

Napoleon focused on a heavy use of symbols to convey the message of Napoleon’s power. The designs were an inspiration of the Greek, Roman Period, but with bold colors, and costly elaborate design. The look was on a grand, massive scale with ornate decoration including ormolu with Egyptian influence. Lions, griffins and symbols references to Napoleon’s reign were very common.

Empire Furniture

Laura Montalban

The passage between the Blue Room and the Green Room, 2009

The White House’s Empire Furniture

Empire furniture followed the Neoclassical movement of Louis XVI in France.   Empire themes stated in the early 19th century and was named after Napoleon who ruled France.   Empire furniture can be found in every country which also developed their name fom this same reference.  One of the most famous empire designed rooms is the Blue Room of the White House.  During the Madison administration, architect Benjamin Latrobe designed a suite of classical-revival furniture for the room, but only some working drawings remain of the original room, as the furniture was destroyed in the fire of 1814.  The room was reconstructed with French Empire furniture similar to how it did prior to the burning in 1814.

Among some of the important and oldest furniture in the White House are some the original furniture ordered by President Monroe from Parisian cabinet-maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé after the fire of 1814.  President Monroe ordered the French empire theme furniture in mahogany. The company, however, sent gilded pieces, which they believed were more appropriate for an official setting.

The suite consists of 53 pieces with crimson silk with laurel leaves and eagles in two shades of gold.  {1 pier table, 2 sofas, 18 (open armchairs ) fauteuils , 2 bergères(enclosed arm chairs), 18 side chairs, 4 upholstered stools, 6  footstools, and 2 screens.}   Unfortunately, much of the furniture was sold off as a way of acquiring new furniture.  Some of the original pieces were reacquired during the Kennedys’ push to collect original White House furnishings.

The Blue Room is located in the center of the State Floor of the White House where the President formally receives guests. The oval room was uniquely designed host formal receptions. As the presidents guests mingle, and form a circle around him, the president would stand in the center of the room to greet them.  The concept of an oval room leaves no one stuck in a corner, and everyone has equal distance from the president.

Empire Furniture

White House Photo by Pete Souza ~ The Blue Room’s Empire Furniture

Michelle Obama Blue Room White House Portrait

The Monroe Bergère Chair & Blue Room Furniture 

Below, The American Empire sofa, Mr Obama is sitting on is upholstered in a silk of the same shade of red.  The Red Room contains several pieces of furniture from the New York workshop of the French-born cabinetmaker Charles-Honore Lannuier.  The furniture in the Red Room dates from the years 1810-1830.

The Red Room furniture has a nice combination of richly carved and finished woods with ormolu mounts.   The furniture is very similar to those of the French pieces now in the Blue Room. Egyptian motifs were extensively used Empire furnishings in France following Napoleon’s 1798-99 campaign in Egypt.  These same designs were then adopted by cabinetmakers working in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Empire Furniture

U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama return to the Blue Room with Paul and Janet Monti after presenting the Medal of Honor posthumously to their son, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti

Empire Furniture

Nancy Reagan in front of the Red Empire Sofa


The arrival of immigrant craftsmen from Europe into America in the early 19th century came the style and popularity of classical designs that were sweeping Europe.  Their collaboration with American furniture makers produced highly sophisticated Empire designs that were neither French nor English but incorporated American elements which eventually became known as American Empire.   At the beginning of the 19th century Greek-inspired architecture gained  popularity in Philadelphia, and classical furniture in America gained footing.   Philadelphia Empire furniture looks closely at the development in Philadelphia between 1800 and 1840.   At 592 pages, this is a huge book lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings, and is perfect for the person whose library needs a good illustrative reference manual on the subject.  Philadelphia Empire Furniture features a large portion of their pictures directly from advertisements or catalogues which must have been a huge undertaking to gather all the large amount of photos for this lavish database of Empire Furniture.

The draw back to this book as (many reviews have noted) that  this book doesn’t contain any educative resources for the person who is interested in researching the subject.  The book contains a generous amount of  photographs, but falls short when it comes to a wealth of information on the subject.

The authors explore Neo-Classicism, the emergence of Greek-Revival architecture, the cabinetmakers of Philadelphia Empire furniture, and the contemporary history of Philadelphia.  One chapter is devoted exclusively to the unpublished sketchbook of accomplished craftsman Anthony G. Quervelle.  Other talented and successful Philadelphia furniture makers included Michel Bouvier, Charles White, Cook & Parkin, and Joseph B. Barry, among several. This book provides historical data about their lives and careers.

Philadelphia Empire Furniture details chapters which are dedicated to each of the following forms: card tables, platform pedestal tables, pier tables, worktables, sofas, chairs, sideboards, secretaries, chests, bedsteads, looking glasses, clocks, and other decorative elements.

Empire Style In Sweden

Empire Furniture Found In Sweden- Neoclassicism in the North: Swedish Furniture and Interiors 1770-1850

Empire Style In Sweden

 Neoclassicism in the North: Swedish Furniture and Interiors 1770-1850

Empire Furniture Found In Sweden

The Empire style is often considered the second phase of Neoclassicism which flowed through Europe and America until around 1830. It gained footing outside these the major metropolitan centers well past the mid-nineteenth century. The style originated with the rule of Napoleon I, who was known as the First French Empire. The style corresponds to the Biedermeier style which was associated with King Carl XIV Johan who had strong German and Danish influences. Biedermeier styled furniture  expanded to many different areas  of Sweden and stretched to areas such as Vienna, Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Biedermeier furniture was not an individual movement in one area, but rather as a series of ideas that gained tremendous popularity that extended past regions and boundaries. (All pictures From Neoclassicism in the North: Swedish Furniture and Interiors 1770-1850)

It all started in Sweden when the Empire style first started to flourish in 1823 when Queen Desiree returned to Sweden after twelve years of being in Paris, and the prosperous middle-class families demanded quality, elegant, yet practical furniture at a reasonable price points.   Desiree who was once the fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte, and lived and breathed in the Empire style for many years, so it was no wonder the style took shape when she returned to Sweden after being in France for so many years.

Desiree Clary’s life was an interesting one. We often think that monarchy enjoys the best of the best, but her life seemed to be sadly puzzling.   Napoleon Bonaparte was once involved with Desiree Clary, but later became involved with Joséphine de Beauharnais whom he then married, and broke off his engagement with Désirée.   Désirée then moved in with her sister Julie and her brother-in-law Joseph, who was the French ambassador to Rome. Designers of Empire design drew their inspiration from Classical Imperial Rome, so it was interesting that she danced around the Roman design which could have influenced her interest, which later saw its emergance in Sweden.

Her husband Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte married Desiree Clary and was elected to the throne in Sweden in 1810. Désirée became quite depressed when she found out that she was to leave Paris. When she arrived in Sweden for the first time and she really had a tough time.   She must have felt so at home in France that she didn’t entertain the idea of moving to a foreign country. She didn’t comply to the demands of formal court etiquette, and the snobbery from the Queen and general court was too much for her to deal with. She never did learn the Swedish language, and kept her self quite distant in her new court. In addition, the harsh winters of Sweden were more than she could handle. She moved to Sweden in the middle of winter and shock of the cold weather left her endlessly crying.

Empire Style In Sweden

She just didn’t want to be there, and did not want to move from France.  She dug her heels in with her stubbornness, or perhaps the realization of the sad reality of what she left in France. The Queen found her to be spoiled and described Desiree as “a French woman in every inch,” who disliked and complained about everything which was not French. She missed her home in Paris so much that she simply returned to Paris, and stayed there for twelve years, even leaving her husband and her son behind, and disregarded that it was a difficult period time for Sweden as they were at war with France.

Her husband met her in Paris some time later, but again returned to Sweden without her as she didn’t want to leave. She was ridiculed by the court of France, and felt hated in Sweden. After twelve years in France she returned to Sweden and it was then that the Empire style really took shape and became popular, mostly from Queen Desiree’s love for France, and the neoclassical movement that surrounded her for many years. Perhaps she was bringing a bit of France (which she considered her her true home) to Sweden.

From royal salons with exquisite Pompeian style to  modest spatter-painted Biedermeier halls, the beautiful Neoclassical houses of Sweden are of interest to any person who closely follows Empire Furniture.  

The text traces the evolution of the Neoclassical style in Sweden, placing it in its wider European context, and explores each of the buildings and its history.  Plans, and original drawings are included in this book by the architects and designers.

Neoclassicism-in-the-North-Swedish-Furniture-and-Interiors-1770-1850-244x300This is one of my personal favorite books that can be found on Neoclassical furniture.  It combines some really rich interiors, but also those with a unique Swedish twist, – white washed floors, plank wood walls, painted interiors, much like French but entirely Swedish.  I know you will enjoy this variation of Empire furnishings.  This is one of the best books I have personally owned.

Neoclassicism in the North: Swedish Furniture and Interiors 1770-1850 features twenty houses and apartments elegantly furnished in the Swedish Neoclassical style.

Brian McCarthy’s Empire Style Home

Designer Brian McCarthy has been known for his partiality to French Empire furniture and European styled interiors.  After working with Parish-Hadley for many years, he opened up his own firm in 1991, and since then has been featured in various publications including Elle Décor, Vogue, Life, New York Magazine’s 100 Best and many others.  New York Social Diary featured his home in their 2007 issue, where very high-end French Empire furniture was paired with contemporary art work, brighter colored walls typical of both modern and Empire interiors.   Leopard carpets serve as a neutral in his home and and anchored together the two styles nicely.   The Wall Street Journel covered McCarthy’s style as one of the hottest new trends with the super wealthy.  The article was very interesting siting that many high-end furnishings dealers are catching onto the trend and are re-grouping their museum furniture along side controversial contemporary art.  For example, Kraemer’s, an exclusive Paris gallery specializing in 18th-century French furniture, is remodeling its showroom to put its antiques in a contemporary setting, and it is working fabulously!   Glossy white walls, over sized brightly painted abstract art and polished black floors seen in modern interiors are paired with ornate gilded 18th century furniture.   Empire Style is known for their bright silks and brightly painted walls so brightly painted abstract art and streamlined pieces work extremely well.  The two styles which have been featured on their own for years are now married together and the style is gaining momentum with the collector and the wealthy around the world.  

Brian McCarthy’s Empire Style Home

I do the same for my clients as I do for myself,” Mr. McCarthy tells The Wall Street Journel “I see a room as a cocktail party. You want to put together a fun group of people, not just investment bankers.”

What makes French furniture of the 17th and 18th century so interesting is that it is sculpture,” he says. “Furniture simply doesn’t get any better. What I hunger for more than important pieces are interesting pieces which make a kind of talking point. Then you can start adding.”

The Wall Street Journal mentions 18th century furniture started gaining popularitywhen Christie’s auctioned items from the extensive collection of French furniture amassed by the Wildenstein family in 2005 and astoundingly raised £21.8 million, which happened to be the biggest furniture sale ever up to that point.  Again in 2006, Christie’s sale of furniture,  featuring intricate marquetry and lacquer brought in £7 million.  Then in 2007, The Bruni Tedeschi sale of antiques netted £12.7 million, three times above the estimate.   It is no wonder that many collectors are showcasing the furniture in a modern way giving a brand new touch to this exquisite furniture.  We are also seeing many interiors featuring a very simplistic design with a select few outstanding Empire pieces with white backgrounds much like you would see in a gallery or museum making the furniture the highlight of the room.   See how Brian McCarthy decorates his home with Empire Furniture…..


Evergreen Antiques was selling an American 20th Century Neoclassical style painted Klismos armchair that featured a wonderful original painted finish.  Evergreen’s Klismos chair featured an amazing hoop back raised on carved scrolled wing supports above a wooden seat.  The klismos chair is famous for its hoop back and sabre legs, and was originally created some time during the mid-fifth century. This ancient Greek chair was recognized from depictions on painted pottery and reliefs from ancient Greece. The klismos was again revived during the second, archaeological phase of European neoclassicism. Recently, in 2010, Restoration Hardware produced a line of outdoor furniture designed in the Klismos style. This style still looks to be some of the best designed chairs ever to be made.

Refined Ebonized French Louis Xvi Buffet W Brass Marble At 1stdibs

Refined Ebonized French Louis Xvi Buffet W Brass Marble At 1stdibs

The Directoire Style took place during 1789-1804. The simplification of furniture begun under Louis XVI along with a taste for more streamlined pieces that had less ornamentation became more prevalent.

Most of the furniture through this time was inspired by the Greek and Pompeian models. Lines are straight with crisp geometric forms. Surfaces are flat and corners are clean. Motifs were in the forms of squares, rectangles and palmettes.

Common Directoire period furniture from this period were crafted out of elm, walnut, fruitwood or beech. Painted pieces were often found in gray, white, sea green and lime green, and the carved ornament was often painted in a contrasting color or different shades of the same color.

Directoire Style Furniture

Vintage French Louis Xvi Ebonized Nightstands W Marble Tops At 1stdibs

Louis Xvi Ebonized Solid Mahogany Bookcase At 1stdibs

Directoire Style Furniture

 Antique French Directoire Style Canopy Bed From Old Plank

Directoire Style Furniture

Look how beautiful the paint color is on this Settee sold by Old Plank