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BOULLE FURNITURE: Lavishness in Every Way

Antiques, often associated with elaborate adornments and rich history, are prestigious elements of any interior, and they require extra attention. Unique among furniture are pieces in the Boulle style. Characterized by their highly precise and ornamental nature, they cannot be confused with any other stylistics.

The activity of Charles André Boulle, a French artist, carpenter, and furniture maker, falls within the reign of Louis XIV – the time of full splendor of court life in Paris and Versailles. The passion for luxury and the grandiose style of the Sun King were reflected in the need for elaborate, lavish, and exclusive furniture. Boulle, as a prominent ebéniste, was able to meet those expectations and satisfy even the most refined tastes. His career started quite early. Initially he had worked for aristocracy but was quickly recommended to the royal court. Boulle’s most remarkable work he did for the king was the decoration of the office of the heir to the throne at Versailles (no longer exists). With time, he acquired the title of premier ébéniste du Roi, that is of the first royal ébéniste. Philippe V of Spain, the Prince of Bourbon, electors from Bavaria and Koln were amongst his protectors.

Furniture in the Boulle style is characterized by exceptionally rich, flat, and figured decoration made of tortoiseshell and brass, which is called Boulle marquetry. Although the technique of marquetry had been invented by a French artist and carpenter, Pierre Golle, who lived in the years 1644-1684 (A. C. Boulle’s father-in-law), Boulle was the one who honed and perfected it. That is why the technique is associated with his name. André-Charles Boulle was born November 11th, 1642, in Paris, where he also died on February 28th, 1732. He was from a Dutch family, but some sources claim he was of German descent. He started his creative path as a painter. Over time many people started to consider him as one of the most prominent artists in the use of inlay. Boulle was the first to use in his furniture the method of covering surfaces with ornamentation of brass, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell.  He designed not only wardrobes, tables, commodes, secretary desks but also clocks and coffers. At the end of the life of Louis XIV, Boulle designed some new types of furniture. For example, a desk in the form of a table on four legs with three drawers under the top, or an elaborately decorated commode which was placed in the most representative section of an interior to emphasize its character.

What is so special about Boulle furniture? In addition to using expensive and precious materials, such as tortoiseshell, exotic wood or gold, Boulle furniture is above all an example of impressive craftsmanship: by cutting a highly precise and delicate pattern drawn on paper and then putting it on adjacent sheets of latten and tortoiseshell. The ornamentation is cut at the same time in brass and tortoiseshell with a special fretsaw. The piece of latten obtained in such a way fits the holes in tortoiseshell and vice versa: the fragment of tortoiseshell fits the cavity cut in the brass. That is how Boulle often made pairs of furniture: One piece with marquetry made of tortoiseshell inlaid with brass, called première partie and the second one with latten complemented with tortoiseshell, called contre partie. The most used decorative motif was that of flagellum with acanthus leaves in geometrical frames, but fantasy scenes were also popular. To emphasize the three-dimensionality of brass fragments, they were shaded with carved lines. Moreover, to create a coloristic illusion on the parts made of tortoiseshell, pieces of paper, mostly red or blue, were put under the surface of the furniture. The alloys of tin and lead, ebony or walnut had been used for creating marquetry at the early stages of the style. Only after 1680 it was made almost exclusively with tortoiseshell and brass.

Original designs by André-Charles Boulle are incredibly valuable and can be found in museums around the world. The National Museum in Warsaw can boast of having one. It is a desk made for John III Sobieski, decorated with an eagle with a crown and a crest. The unique style created by the French artist had many imitators in the 18th and 19th centuries. Currently on the market most common are 19th-century Neo-Baroque copies of Boulle furniture. Maybe they are less valuable, but their level of craftsmanship is comparable. What is more, similarly to the 17th century, they are seen as luxurious.

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