Provençal furniture by Janice Lert

provencal furniture 1Furniture has evolved over the centuries as our needs have been identified and satisfied by craftsmen able to procure the necessary materials — in the case of Provence mostly wood and metal. Under the French monarchy, the nobles were eager to copy the types and styles of furniture that were being used in the king’s court and thus furniture, like clothing, constantly evolved according to what was in fashion. However, the needs of a farmer in his mas in the provençal countryside were not necessarily the same as those of the noble living in a mansion house, so it is sometimes necessary to distinguish between two different movements. When we speak of typical provençal furniture today, we are referring to objects which represent a good synthesis of the two: lovely carved pieces of furniture that were originally useful in farmhouses but were adopted by the provençal community at large for their decorative qualities.


The styles of the furniture produced in Provence can change considerably from one village to the next. One of the most typical in Arles is called the Fourques style. Fourques is the town just across the Petit-Rhône from Arles, in the Gard department. The style is characterized by 'snails', a rococo design with spirals gouged out of the wood decorating the feet of a table, the base of a bread box, or the panels of a crédence for example. This simple style appears to have been developed during the 17th and early 18th centuries, and is considered the oldest style typical of Arles.


Another decoration often found on provençal pieces of furniture is the 'soup tureen' which may resemble an urn. It often appears on the bases of wardrobes or commodes. It is a symmetric decoration symbolic of the hearth and the home, and represents an evolution toward more complicated carvings. Other such subjects, such as sheaves of wheat or olive branches, symmetrical or not, can be seen on furniture created more recently.


These two types of decoration are used on pieces with no openwork. However a non-symmetrical openwork style also evolved in Provence, sometimes called the Avignon style, from the late 18th century on, to be used on table fronts or bureau bases with sculpted vegetation surrounding empty cutouts. This is the most exuberant style and often accompanies curved furniture. The wood traditionally used for furniture in Provence was walnut, a wood which would originate in the Alps and be floated down to Arles in the Durance and Rhône Rivers. Sometimes this trip took months, and the wood which had stayed in the water for a long time took on a lighter tint that was a favourite with cabinet-makers. Now that we have discussed styles, let’s turn to the typical pieces of furniture to be found in a provençal farmhouse:


provencal furniture 2Bread box and kneading trough:

Among the objects decorating the provençal kitchen is the panetière or bread box. Bread was often baked once a week and needed to be kept in a spot where it would not be stolen by children or eaten by rats... The panetière was designed at first to be placed on top of the kneading trough or pétrin; this is why it has feet. These feet soon became purely decorative and the box was hung on the wall, probably for two reasons: it wasn’t practical to remove the bread box every time you wanted to knead bread; on the wall the box was out of the reach of children and rodents.

After the custom of hanging the box on the wall became universal, the top pinnacles known as bobèches were added to create a symmetrical effect opposite the feet now hanging in the air.

The oldest mention of a panetière goes back to 1620 in Orange. The object was particularly useful in Provence, where wheat grew abundantly and bread was a major staple in the diet. In the 17th century the boxes received curved fronts and sculpted bases. Elaborate bronze or wrought iron fixtures were added for locks. Air circulated between the sculpted spindles that make up the sides. Then in the 19th century this tiny piece of furniture evolved to follow the popular eclectic architectural styles and became 'neo-gothic' for example. Around the middle of the 19th century the object lost its usefulness and became purely decorative, but panetières have continued to be produced regularly by provençal cabinet-makers ever since.

Kneading troughs which had originally been made of stone were soon made from walnut also. They are generally trapezoidal in shape, on a base like that of a table or stool, bringing the bottom of the trough up to a convenient height to knead bread. They have a top cover that can be raised. The sculpted decoration can be found on the crosspieces between the legs or under the trough. The cover can also have a curved or moulded edge. This piece of utilitarian furniture probably received decoration at a time when decorated bread boxes became popular, so as not to be outdone. Today these kneading troughs are used as side tables.


Bedroom furniture:beds and wardrobes:

Bedroom furniture was often received as a wedding present. The provençal wardrobe is so tall that it sometimes will not fit into modern rooms with low ceilings. It often has two symmetrical doors decorated with bronze or wrought iron fittings for the locks, fastening onto a central vertical stile wide enough to contain some of the main carved decoration, which continues on the cornice and base. The top cornice is often in the shape of a gendarme’s hat. Each door is usually divided into two or three vertical sections with curved moulded panels. The decorative themes are those detailed above, but they may also include special touches identifying the object as a wedding present: initials, cornucopia or basket of plenty, hearts, arrows, doves, etc. Some wardrobes have only one door with a full-length mirror occupying the whole height. They can also have a drawer, secret or not, in the base. Inside, the wardrobes usually have three shelves: clothing was folded rather than hung on hangers.

The provençal bed is a four-poster, adapted from beds with canopies after the canopy disappeared. Thus the side posts can be up to one meter high in certain areas. Around Arles the side posts tend to be shorter and are sometimes only slightly higher than the head and foot panels. The bedstead often had no decoration at all. In the 20th century ornate head and foot boards were sometimes created by local craftsmen. A straw or horsehair mattress was laid directly onto the ropes, boards or canvas designed to hold it in the frame; there was no spring. It is rare to find a true provençal bed because they were traditionally burned after their owner died.


provencal furniture 3Seating:

The provençal farmhouse had no need for armchairs and sofas: the earliest seats were simply open benches around a table made of boards on sawhorses. Then Provence seems to have imported from Italy the braided straw seat. The straw, which is made from swamp grass or barley, is woven around a square frame and inserted into the seat of a simple chair with a slightly rounded back composed of two or three cross rails. The top rail is usually larger than the others and may be decorated with one of the symbols already discussed, or, in more modern furniture, a scallop shell. Arms can also be added, but the chair is basically a utilitarian object, made comfortable by the use of springy straw.

A straw seat could also be used for a special provençal banquette called a radassié. This piece of furniture resembles two or three chairs put together and could seat from two to four persons. It had arms added on either end, and was once again a good place for sitting with friends. The name comes from the wonderful provençal verb radassa which can be translated as "to loll around"... Quite a program!


provencal furniture 4Chests and bureaux:

Clothing could be placed in a wardrobe, but other household belongings also needed to be stored. In the Middle Ages these objects were stored in chests with hinged tops. But a chest or trunk had to be opened from the top, which prevented it being used as a seat or table. Some simple trunks found in antique shops today belonged to sailors, numerous in and around Arles, and always on the move. The idea of putting drawers in the chest probably goes back to the 17th century, when more practical furniture was being designed. And today there is little in common between a sailor’s trunk and a provençal bureau or chest of drawers, often called a commode. The bureaux often have curved fronts and two or three drawers. Metal is only used for the locks and the handles. The heavy walnut wood is waxed to give it a bright shine. Some bureau tops are made of marble but most are of wood, either several boards assembled together or exceptionally one large board. The carved decoration can be very ornate, particularly on the base, including openwork, scrolls of vegetation, etc.


Crédences and other pieces for table ware:

The bureau or commode can be found in the bedroom, but a similar piece of furniture, derived also from the chest, can be found in the dining room. It is called a crédence, buffet or sideboard, and is about as high as a bureau, but has two front doors instead of drawers. It is usually decorated in a manner similar to that of a wardrobe: symbolic motifs on the base and central stile, mouldings on the doors. The metal hinges are often visible on the outside. It is used to store table ware and is sometimes topped with a smaller, narrower piece with sliding doors for glasses, called a glissant.

These furnishings keep your table ware free of dust, but don’t allow you to show it off. If you have lovely objects made of glass or pewter you may want to display them in a special case composed of open shelves hanging on the wall. This estagnier or pewter cabinet can be very simple, or on the contrary quite elaborate with a cornice and base with volutes, bunches of flowers or any of the other decorations we have spoken of. Each shelf has a railing in front of it so that pewter plates can easily be displayed vertically.

To complete the wall decoration in the provençal kitchen you can also find little boxes with hinged lid tops for salt or flour, to be hung on the wall. The salt boxes often had a drawer for spices. The flour boxes sometimes had sliding openings which allowed the housewife to place a fish to be floured directly in the box, meaning that no flour was wasted during the flouring process... These little boxes were originally simple in design, but, like the panetière, they continue to be manufactured for decorative purposes even though they may not be used for salt or flour as originally intended. The more modern productions have more elaborate decorations: fish, modern soup tureens and olive branches, etc...


Able craftsmen still build quality furniture today in Provence. Other types of wood may be used, such as cherry or linden wood, and the decoration is often exaggerated with new themes taken from provençal folklore: musical instruments such as the fife and drum, Arlesian women in costume dancing the farandole, cowherds, bulls and horses in the Camargue. Over the centuries tastes fluctuate from complex to simple and back to complex again. Right now we are in a period where taste in home furnishings tends toward straight lines, basic colours and angular sobriety. Provençal furniture is thus hard to place in a modern apartment. But if you have an old mas, there is nothing lovelier than the soft shee
n of waxed brown provençal walnut furniture on the stucco walls and red tile floor.


Source: Venture, Rémi, Les Objets de Provence, Editions du Chêne, 2002.

Related articles: articles concerning the Museon Arlaten.