What Is Parquet Flooring?
In the late medieval period in Europe, as upstairs rooms became more common in domestic dwellings, so did the practice of flooring them in timber planking. The progression from crude, rough planks to more delicate, patterned ones is not difficult to imagine. This process, over the course of centuries, probably occurred all over Europe simultaneously in various regions and countries. What we call parquet flooring today is what grew out of this process, shaped pieces of timber arranged into intricate patterns to form a floor surface. Over the centuries, the most famous patterns have been:
- Herringbone parquet
- Double herringbone
- Chevron parquet (also known as Hungarian point parquet)
- Basketweave parquet
- Panels parquet such as: Versailles, Albert, Chantilly, Cross, Etoile
- Mansion weave parquet
Parquet Flooring History: The Early Days
What we would now recognise as parquet wood flooring is said to have originated in the chateaux of France in the sixteenth century. This could have been a French invention or could have arrived with Catherine de’ Medici, her entourage, and her Italian cultural influence in the 1530s. We do know, however, that Italian architects were employed at her palace at Fontainebleau at that time, designing in the Renaissance style. Whether parquet was used is unknown but it seems likely. Later, in the 1620s, another de’ Medici, in this case, Marie, is known to have installed an elaborate Parquet Marquette, executed in a technique brought over from Italy, in her closet at the newly constructed Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Luxembourg was considered to be the most influential building in all of Europe and no doubt facilitated the spread of the use of parquet.
By far the best-known use of parquet in its early days was at the Palace of Versailles, home of the French royal court from the 1680s until 1789. Louis XIV, the Sun King, if not the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, was certainly the most influential, with French taste in architecture and interior design being far-reaching and preeminent. This, added to the fact that at Versailles, unlike in many earlier applications, the parquet flooring was used throughout the palace, not just in the more intimate chambers. Here, it was utilised in the grand halls and salons, where in earlier times, stone would have been used. Two types of wooden parquet patterns were used at Versailles: the chevron pattern and the pattern now known as panel de Versailles, the Versailles panel.
These forms of parquet evolved at Versailles and the other French royal palaces at the end of the seventeenth century were generally adopted all over Europe during the next fifty years. This was especially the case in the German provinces where there was a long-standing tradition of superior wood craftsmanship, which was often bestowed on intricate timber flooring. The general exception to the rule was Great Britain.
Parquet Flooring in Britain
The earliest documented use of parquet flooring in Britain was at Denmark House in London, which later became Somerset House, where it was specified by architect Inigo Jones. It was also installed in the Queen’s Bed Chamber at Ham House, in 1673, but beyond these exceptional residences, it was not frequently seen. In a drawing of Samuel Pepys’s London library, circa 1692, we are shown a room of wide, bare floorboards. This seems to have been accepted practice at the time for even the more well-to-do.
While its use became more and more common on the continent in the eighteenth century, parquet did not see a significant increase in popularity here in the UK. In the same way that the Rococo style of decoration, which swept through Europe in the 1730s, never gained widespread popularity in Britain, so could be said of parquet flooring. Perhaps it was seen as something irredeemably connected to the fussiness of Rococo interiors and not entirely compatible with the predominant Anglo-Palladian style of the time, or perhaps it could have been deemed, in British eyes, as too French.
While all the above might be true, it must be said that British taste in flooring, first and foremost, simply diverged from that on the Continent. One of the greatest differences, by the eighteenth century, was the extensive use of carpeting for domestic floors in the UK. While many today are surprised at the idea of there being fitted carpeting two and three centuries ago, in actuality, it was extremely common, especially in the homes of the more well off. With the floors being covered by these carpets, fancy parquet would have been, obviously, unnecessary. English architect Isaac Ware wrote in 1754 that, “the use of carpeting at this time has set aside the ornamenting of floors in great measure.” This practice continued throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth. While styles changed, the British preference for carpeting and the Continental preference for parquet did not.