The Compagnons and their Meubles de Maitrise

When it comes to antiques, the meuble de maitrise is unique. Translated in English as Mastery Furniture, these pieces were not done by the masters. Instead, the meuble de maitrise was a scale model created by the cabinet maker's apprentice in order to prove his skills to the master. Often introduced as a challenge for the apprentice after they had completed a tour of France to observe different techniques, the meuble de maitrise was a means to show off one's acquired skills.

On the left a Louis Philippe miniature chest and on the right a Louis XVI miniature chest with a bottle for comparison to show size.

Though not a masterpiece in the strict sense of the term, these miniature pieces of furniture often masterfully displayed the intricacies of technique, complexity of materials, as well as the hard earned patience of the apprentice. Also unlike a master's work these pieces were rarely signed, with the apprentice behind them remaining anonymous to this day.

This institution of apprenticeship has roots that go back as far as the Middle Ages, however it wasn't until the 16th century that its organization became a permanent staple in furniture making. Due to a more sedentary lifestyle that began in the 16th century, there was a new demand from the upper class for cabinets, desks, seating, etc..Thus the cabinet maker was born and apprentices followed suit. To increase the number of assistants to aid the cabinet makers that were in high demand, a new institution named the Compagnons de France was initiated.

Louis XVI style secretary writing desk
(Click photo to view online)

To be compagnon, complete training was required. It began with six years of apprenticeship carrying out menial tasks, followed by three years as a journeyman touring the country. Once complete, the compagnon paid an admission fee and presented his Meuble de Maitrise to a jury of 6 Cabinet Makers, all with 10 or more years of mastery under their belts. Foreigners could also apply to become a Compagnon de France, but the requirements for their meuble de maitrise were doubled since many did not have the same programs of apprenticeship in their native countries. Once admitted to the institution, the new member would be restricted to Paris, near the king's court, thereby solidifying the king's "style" as the predominant one. Few member were allowed to leave Paris, though those that did would relay to the provinces the preferred ornamentation demanded by the current king.

Above a miniature chair in the English Jacobean style.
(Click photo to view online)

The institution of Compagnons exists to this day, with a final piece required of each new applicant to highlight their craft. Though no longer strictly relating to furniture, craftsmen now create pieces out of many things including bronze, marble, and even mechanics. It is no wonder that the Compagnons are the most sought after workers in France today due to the demanding training that makes them elite craftsmen.

 Compagnon de France miniature wooden hay wagon signed Marc 2007. 
(Click photo to view online)  

Harrison Hunt
Harrison Hunt


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