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While almost everyone is familiar with Baroque, the larger-than-life 17th Century style characterized by profuse gilding, massive plaster reliefs, and a brazen brandishing of bronze, Baroque’s more mild-mannered and adaptable successor, Rococo, often gets overshadowed. Rococo is a bit more demure than Baroque (which equates to major points in the accessibility department when you’re talking about gold-encrusted pediments and cherub-decked cornices), yet every bit as spirited. As a result, Rococo is an ideal style for those considering the exhibitionist luxury of Baroque but fear unintentionally side-stepping into parody à la Liberace. Which is all to say: those tempted by Baroque chandeliers and Baroque barley-legged benches would be wise to consider Rococo as well.

Unlike many styles that stray wildly from their predecessors (think of the opulent 1980s styles that superseded Mid-Century Modernism’s modest marvels), Rococo—which spanned approximately 50 years from 1730 to 1780—stuck closely to the ideals put into play by Baroque. Yet a few nuanced differences do exist. Curious about what constitutes Baroque furniture and Rococo furniture, as well as how to integrate both styles in a way that avoids pigeonholing them as glaring anachronisms? Go for Baroque (and Rococo) with our quick-reference guide that makes easy work of decoding these two prodigal styles. 

Photo by Maura McEvoy

Baroque 

Deriving from the Portugese word barroco which translates to flawed pearl, Baroque was a direct rebellion against the spartan furniture that prevailed during the Renaissance era. The redirect was spurred by the Catholic church, an institution that, feeling cracked down upon by the Protestant Reformation, worked to retain followers by commissioning provocative art and decor intended to evoke wonder, veneration, and, ultimately, devotion. 

As might be expected with such clerical origins, Biblical subject matter received top billing during the Baroque period. To stir evangelical awakenings, Baroque art was rendered in the most realistic style possible and relied on deep, pigmented color to enrapture viewers. To pique the interest even more, illusionistic techniques were employed, such as chiaroscuro, the Italian practice of juxtaposing intense light and dark to procure multi-dimensionality in art. On the architectural end, trompe l’oeil was a favored sleight of hand. Artists cued up optical mirages designed to pull viewers toward what was viewed as the centerpiece of the entire Baroque movement: the church altar.

True, even in contemporary times, most people who consider themselves acquainted with Baroque style are likely to have picked up a knowledge of it through the Catholic church, a venue that is still rich with the Baroque rubric. Bronzes, gildings, plaster, marble, and stucco surfaces abound, as do architectural details like twisted columns and overarching cupolas. Baroque’s rigidity, which mostly became apparent through the arrival of Rococo, was often masked by its over-the-top ornamentation. 

Photo by Jacqueline Marque / Design by  Sherry Shirah Designs

Rococo 

As Baroque tastes adapted to the private sector, Rococo emerged. Private residences didn’t demand the grandiose embellishment that churches did, dictating a less palatial style. As it was, peoples’ residences were becoming even more intimate than in prior centuries thanks to the integration of defined rooms. Previously, homes had a large open space in which all activities took place. By the Rococo period, rooms for specific activities like music, reading, sleeping, and living began to spring up, rousing the demand for furniture that trended more intimate and personal.

Rococo, in effect, took the best qualities of Baroque and tailored them down to fit the burgeoning format. Baroque’s grandiosity was scaled back a bit, resulting in a style that was still extravagant but on a much more refined scale. Rococo lifts its name from two words: the French word rocaille, which literally translates to mussel, but was also used to describe the serpentine, shell-embedded garden grottoes that the French favored in the 18th century, and the Italian word barocco, which is hat tip to Baroque itself. The shell naming is apt, as the shell motif can be found extensively throughout Rococo furniture. Whereas Baroque relied on massive, gold-gilded pediments and cornices, Rococo took a more light-handed approach embracing motifs like shells, bat wings, garlands, fountain jets, and swags to adorn dresser facades and table legs. 

Rococo’s more delicate approach ushered in a feeling of airiness and playfulness not present in Baroque. Never was this more apparent than in Rococo art. Rather than the Biblical subject matter Baroque focused on, Rococo honed in on elevating the power of French aristocrats. Themes of mythology, nature, and love—among other amorous encounters—were commonplace. Fête galantes, lush visions in which fashionably dressed party-goers (or undressed, as the case may be—Rococo was notorious for a touch of the hedonistic) jaunt through the scene, are a hallmark of the Rococo art period. 

Rococo furniture design embraced similar values as Rococo art. The cabriole leg emerged, replacing Baroque’s bulbous take on ground-level support. Baroque candelabras, chandeliers, and wall sconces were all replicated for the home but slimmed down with Rococo ideals in mind. Rococo also proved a pert partner for other global styles like Chinoiserie; hence the reason you’ll often see Chinoiserie mismash-ed with elements like garlands and sinuous swags.

Photo by Laurey Glenn

4 Way to Work Rococo and Baroque Into Modern Interiors 

Go Big with Baroque Art

There’s something bewitching that happens when large-scale Baroque art is implanted into a contemporary space. Uncanny realism makes Baroque art appear more like a photograph than painting, imbuing a room with the same gallery-level gravity as photography. Juxtaposition is key to procuring an adventurous feel rather than an austere one. Pull colors from your piece of Baroque art and invest in 20th Century furnishings and decor with a bit of playful pomp. Wallpaper, especially something like a simple, colorful stripe, can work wonders while simultaneously cueing up the kind of optical magic Baroque was originally known for.  

Channel Eclecticism with a Chandelier

For those with chandelier ambitions, a Baroque chandelier hits the bulls-eye. Mesmerizing in every sense of the word, Baroque chandeliers with their bobeches, beading, and tiers can make other chandeliers feel paltry. A Baroque chandelier is a statement, and while it can make do with more antiquated styles, it’s when hung among modernistic furniture that it really takes on decorative splendor. Use a Baroque chandelier over a simple Tulip table in a dining room or a sleek platform bed in a bedroom. A monochromatic palette can ramp up the drama even more while also working to keep decorating blunders at bay. 

French Connection

Rococo is easier to sync with contemporary interiors than Baroque, but trying to artfully integrate more than one piece can still present a challenge. To make coalescing an array of Rococo pieces easier, consider making it a fully French affair. Factor in modern interpretations of Louis XVI chairs, bergères, and cabriole leg tables that showcase abridged Rococo details. The mix will feel eclectic, but also intuitive.

Make a Mirror a Muse

Baroque’s reliance on visual illusion—think chiaroscuro—dictated that mirrors play an integral role. Similarly, Rococo made use of elaborately embellished mirrors. Today, thick, gold-framed Baroque and Rococo mirrors rank among designers’ most stylish stalwarts, a no-fail element that seamlessly transitions into virtually any interior, no matter the style. Even used in the most modern of spaces, a Rococo or Baroque mirror can hold its own, taking a space from feeling stark to expertly collected.

Shop all Baroque and Rococo Furniture >>

Lead photo by Nicole Cohen / Design by Sasha Bikoff

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November 15, 2020

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