Empire Furniture Characteristics

The design style referred to as Empire is rooted in the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and the fascination at that time with classical architecture and interiors.


This settee displays the curved legs and straight back characteristic of the Empire style.This settee displays the curved legs and straight back characteristic of the Empire style.
The early 19th century furniture created in the Empire style reflected the political climate of toppling the aristocracy and the social climate of imitating the geometric approach to design of the ancient Roman and Greek cultures.

Empire furniture is a mix of clean, simple lines and carefully added ornamentation. In chairs, the curves and lines are delicate in both weight and proportion. Furniture makers, then referred to as cabinet makers, borrowed the curved leg of the Greek klimos chair. The front legs turn outward and the feet are clawed, resembling animal paws. The Egyptian and Roman influence is seen in the curule chair, in which the legs resemble two half-circles, one set atop the other so the two points of the curves join together.


In contrast to the delicately formed but functional chairs of the Empire style, the tables are sturdier and weightier in appearance. Tabletops rest on singular columns supported by three or four outstretched legs, the legs terminating in claw feet or simply curving to a rounded end. The drop-leaf table, in which the tabletop is sectioned and the sides hinged so they can be folded down, is common to the Empire style. Mahogany is used extensively in the construction of tables and in seating, but knot elm and maple is also seen. Gilded appliqués are sometimes seen on tabletops, taking the form of pastoral scenes or "civic" actions; this characteristic reflects the themes common to artwork in ancient Roman culture.


Ornamentation was added to furniture and the appearance is one of layering the decorative onto the functional. Such motifs as lyres or emblems make up decorative elements in chair backs or on chests, but such elements appear partitioned rather than incorporated. Common motifs include pyramids, bees, eagles and swans, as well as oval emblems on which the letter "N" is engraved.


Empire furniture is functional, meeting the need of the user, but chairs and settees are rarely comfortable. The upholstery is minimal, the backs straight and the seats nearly linear. It's as if the user is expected to sit at attention. As one of the goals of the Empire style was to achieve a clean, linear appeal, such items as drawer pulls were excluded from cabinetry. The functionality in these instances played a secondary role to style. Drawer pulls and decorative hinges are not entirely absent, but their use is judicious.

About the Author

Shelly McRae is a freelance writer residing in Phoenix, Ariz. Having earned an associate degree from Glendale Community College with a major in graphic design and technical writing, she turned to online writing. McRae has written articles for multiple websites, drawing on her experience in the home improvement industry and hydroponic gardening.