It’s not often that we find furniture that is considered gender specific. Especially in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Certainly, wedding chests were most usually provided by the family of the bride. But in no place do we particularly find a piece of furniture that is specifically male or female … Until 16th Century France.
Meet the Caquetoire.
The Caquetoire holds a very interesting place in the evolution of seating furniture. Not only is it probably the first piece of furniture specifically designed for women, but it also marks the transition from box-chairs to paneled legged chairs leading into the modern era.
Even in instances of four-legged chairs predating the rise of the caquetoire, the leg assembly is generally square, and there were usually some kind of panel facing on the sides. The “chatting chair” breaks many conventions of the age with the light construction of the legs and lower frame, as well as the innovation of the wedge shaped seat. In some ways, we can see the early elements of what will become Windsor Chairs in another couple of centuries. In the meantime, lets put an eye on the parts that make this type of chair unique.
First, as said, these chairs were specifically designed for women. More exactly, they were designed for their skirts. Voluminous gowns don’t necessarily fit well in a square seat. The front to rear taper on these chairs actually serves to allow full skirts to be displayed when a lady is seated in the chair. Some suggest that the chair itself is wholly designed just to accommodate the skirts of the era. By proportional inference (lacking full and specific measurements), we know the seatback is about 1/3rd the width of the front. For this then to be a “common width” chair with a flare to the front to accommodate skirts, then the seatback should be 15-21 inches wide. Were that the case, the front of the seat would have to be at least around 40 inches wide. Given the proportions in the image, we’d then have to figure the chair is some 45 inches from the floor to the seat. Well that won’t do. It isn’t about accommodating the skirts, but is about displaying them when the chair is used.
Unlike most chairs of the period, this type is meant to be relatively easily moved while still retaining the rich ornament of carved panel backs, bridging between sculptural carvings and geometric tracery. There are even several examples contemporaneous that have elaborately turned spindles serving as the seat-back. Several examples, the one pictured above included, exhibit a combination of turned spindles and square legs. In earlier periods, chairs and similar would include all turned parts or none at all. Mixing the two elements would still make the contenders of the London Guilds apoplectic. These chairs developed in France. Which is one final oddity. There are almost no forms of furniture that appear unique to France during the Medieval and Renaissance period. In this case, however, we have a form that originated, dominated, and can be almost exclusively identified with the region.