Antique Empire Sofa Styles for Elegant Flair

Updated November 19, 2021
Three-person Empire style wild cherrywood canape

After watching an early 19th century period film, haven't you just fantasized about reclining on one of those brightly colored sofas without a care in the world? These antique Empire sofas are delightful additions to the modern living room and can be considered the ultimate find for many collectors. Turn your apartment into a historic parlor by picking up one of the many empire sofas that've survived to today.

The Empire Style Emerges

The Empire aesthetic style began in France during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (1804-1815). Napoleon and his court believed that creating interest in ancient Rome. Comparing Napoleon to Augustus Caesar, they could change the French form of government from the republic to an empire without causing too much protest from regular citizens. Part of this plan was implemented by encouraging French artisans to create Roman inspired styles in fashion and home décor. Motifs that were symbolic of (and to) Napoleon were used decoratively alongside the Roman designs.

In the early 1850s, Napoleon III took control in France, and the Second Empire style was born. This included the motifs and design components of the classic Empire style but drew on other historic French styles, including:

  • Gothic
  • Renaissance
  • Baroque
  • Rococo
  • Neoclassic

The Second Empire style became popular in the United States in the 1850s and inspired fashion, architecture, and interior design for the next fifty or so years, leading to America's own well-known Empire sofas to be manufactured as well.

Styles Transition in the Mid-Century

During the late 1850s, the Classical Empire style, with its geometric lines, was slowly transformed by the Victorian love of opulence and curves. Sofa backs became more rounded, padding was added to the arms and cushions, and the number of details increased. By the 1870s, these sofa backs were often tufted. The number of curves on the back of the sofa could vary from a sleek and gentle curve to several, almost round design elements. In the earlier designs, the top rail of the back was almost always exposed and carved. As time went on, the upholstery became a larger part of the design, where rich velvets and velours were added to create opulence and shine.

American Empire style furniture circa 1820

Common Empire Sofa Motifs

Napoleonic motifs, along with many others, were adopted by French artisans and furniture makers as they crafted Empire style sofas. Some of these motifs that you can find on French Empire sofas include:

  • Monograms
  • Bees (symbol of Napoleon)
  • Egyptian motifs: sphinx, winged lions, scarabs
  • Military motifs: medals, trophies, rosettes
  • Cornucopia
  • Acanthus leaves
  • Honeysuckle
  • Animal paw feet
  • Ball and claw feet
  • Scroll feet
  • Dolphins
  • Eagles

Common Empire Sofa Materials

Many different types of materials were used in Empire and Second Empire styles, but the most popular were:

  • Mahogany
  • Ebony
  • Papier mâché
  • Cast iron
  • Mother of pearl, inlaid
  • Ivory, especially inlaid
  • Gilt
  • Faux bamboo
  • Rosewood
  • Maple

Other Noteworthy Design Components

Other design elements that marked the Second Empire style were purely American.

  • Bold carvings - Carvings were bold and deep without a lot of detail.
  • Oversized motifs - The motifs became oversized and almost over powering.
  • Structural scrolls - Scrolls were structural in nature, a part of the furniture rather than just an embellishment.
  • Stenciling - Items were stenciled.
  • Geometric lines and shapes - Geometric shapes were favored, although without the smooth lines of the Art Deco period.
  • Veneers - Veneers were used.
  • Unique ends and legs - Scroll ends and curule (X shaped) legs were used on antique Empire sofas and chairs.
Woman sitting on the couch

Tips for Buying an Antique Empire Sofa

If you want to add a statement piece to your living room, then an authentic empire sofa is a great idea. Unfortunately, the highest quality sofas (which have few repairs and hardly any sign of damage) will cost you upwards of $5,000-$10,000. Granted, you can always find one in need of a little repair in the low thousands. Make sure that you're always looking at the furniture's materials to see if they're a high quality that will last you a lifetime, or if they're cheaply made and are possible indicative of a fake. If you're convinced that you need an empire sofa in your home, then here are the best places to start looking:

  • eBay - You can find a treasure trove of antique empire sofas in various conditions and styles on the internet's favorite auction website, eBay. Make sure that you look carefully at all of the listings to see what the sellers are charging for shipping, since these heavy sofas can incur shocking amounts in shipping fees.
  • Etsy - One of eBay's main competitors, Etsy, also has a lot of community-curated antiques and vintage items up for purchase. Among their collections is a substantial selection of furniture, including empire sofas from various years and regions.
  • 1st Dibs - If you're looking for high-quality antique furniture like empire sofas, 1st Dibs is the best place on the internet. Granted, this substantiated paperwork means that these pieces of furniture often cost more than your average homegrown sale.
American empire style sofa

Tips for Restoring an Antique Empire Sofa

If you are lucky enough to own one of these beautiful pieces of furniture history, you may find that it needs some restoration. It's always best to have an appraiser look at any piece and advise you on what repairs can be done to increase its stability and longevity. Sometimes refinishing and other repairs can detract from the value and historical significance of the piece. That being said, there're times when it's best to leave certain signs of aging alone if they're not structural. When these repairs do need to be done, it's best to have someone who specializes in antique restoration do them.

Re-upholstery is almost always going to be needed in these projects. While some people don't care about the historical accuracy of the fabrics that they use, others want to be as historically accurate as possible. If you're someone who wants to stick to period-correct fabrics, then here are a few tips:

  • Look for original fabric - Many times there'll be a piece left stuck to a nail or tack that hasn't been affected by the usual signs of age and weathering that can give you an idea of what the original color and design were.
  • Find reference images - Look at antique sites and online museums for images of Empire sofas similar to yours to get an idea of what fabrics were typically used.
  • Use period appropriate fabrics - Some fabric and upholstery sites specialize in period appropriate designs. These can be a big help if you know approximately when your sofa was made. Some suggested fabrics are satin or silk damask, velvet, and braid and some suggested colors are apple green, malachite green, gold, burgundy, and royal blue.

Where to Find Historical Fabric

The following shops offer a large selection of historical fabrics and fabric reproductions.

  • The Historical Fabric Store - This Swedish-based fabric business sells all sorts of historic fabrics, tools, and notions. If you're looking to re-upholster your sofa, then you'll want to pay extra attention to their brocades and velvets.
  • Reproduction Fabrics - Reproduction Fabrics focuses on bringing historical fabrics back to the public using extensive research and documentation. Their section of fabrics from 1825 to 1865 will work great for a re-upholstery project on an empire sofa.
  • Denver Fabrics - While Denver Fabrics doesn't have a section specifically for antique furniture, many of their fabrics can be repurposed for historic projects.

Make Your Fashion Empire

Turn your living room into a fashion empire with an empire sofa from the 19th century. Whether you prefer French or American styles, velvets or brocades, there are thousands of options for you to choose from. And if you're lucky enough to already have one in your care, take a second to check out its condition and see if it might be worth restoring to its former glory. Either way, any sofa--historic or not--will turn into your new favorite nap spot in no time at all.

Antique Empire Sofa Styles for Elegant Flair