‘Boulle’ furniture, pronounced ‘buhl, has its origins with the French cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle. Boulle became renowned for his fame in marquetry by inlaying brass and tortoiseshell. Born in 1642, Boulle was favoured by King Henri IV and granted a lodging in the galleries of the Louvre, apartments provided for his most favoured artists. This privilege was not only one of status, but it also freed artists and tradesman from the restrictions of trade guilds. In addition to Royal commissions, Boulle also created furniture for other royalty and nobility, with his output ranging from commodes, armoires to pedestals and clockcases. Boulle left four sons who followed his footsteps and inherited his workshop in 1715.
Boulle’s innovative technique was costly, partly due to the quantity of valuable material used and the labour-intensive process of cutting each article for a particular pattern. Boulle later glued sheets of metal together and sawed through the bundles so that the patterns were produced in one movement. He also used gold leaf with tortoiseshell for particular visual effects, and adopted a process of working brass with a graver, disguising pins and nails as ornamental features as they were hammered flat. Attribution of furniture to Boulle’s workshop is problematic due to the lack of substantial documentation. Examples of his work can be found in the Louvre in Paris and the Wallace Collection. Attribution is now based on the skill of the marquetry and the template designs, as shown in engravings by Boulle himself and published by his friend Pierre-Jean Mariette in 1720. Descriptions and an inventory of sorts of his work was made in 1715 when his workshop was legally transferred to his sons, and this also aids with attribution.
Boulle furniture became so distinctive that any furniture, regardless of the craftsmanship and materials used, which had a reddish hue was described as ‘buhl’ in the 19th century. The name ‘buhl’ is the invention of a British auctioneer and furniture maker, and often with 19th century copies, the brass is thin and often forms a veneer.