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PARIS November 5 (Reuters) - The "Desk of the King" took nine years of work for the cabinetmakers of Louis XV, its rich inlays, secret drawers and innovative design making it one of the many masterpieces of 18th century French furniture.
Now, this and other treasures of furniture design from 1650 through 1790, corresponding to the reigns of Louis XIV through Louis XVI, are on display at Versailles in a noteworthy show, "The 18th Century at the Source of Design."
From the bulky, straightbacked chairs resembling thrones from the early part of the century to the sinuous curves that characterized the tastes under Louis XV, the exposition is a "best of" the century in which virtuosity, imagination and innovation characterized new furniture design.
Many of the works have never been seen in public and were lured away from private collections for the exhibition, the biggest in France on the subject in 50 years.
Although 18th century design is loved by many - and still prevails in luxury hotels that look to the "ancien regime" as the pillar of extravagance - current tastes for more subdued style have given the era a reputation of being excessively ornate and stuffy.
"You hear today that this period is no longer in fashion, but when you see these masterpieces, you can see they're still worthy of being talked about," Catherine Pegard, head of the agency that administers Versailles and its estate, said at a recent press preview.
Isabelle Bresset, director of the furniture department at Paris auction house Artcurial, said such pieces have appeared on the market less and less in recent years.
"That's why this exhibition is so great, finally you can see some truly exceptional things," Bresset told Reuters. "The piece of furniture becomes a work of art. It's no longer just furnishing."
The pieces in oak, ebony and rosewood, sumptuously adorned with gilt, lacquer work or inlays of porcelain, are presented individually. Separated from their normal environments inside lavishly decorated rooms in palaces and mansions, the viewer can better appreciate their originality and innovations.
"You're not distracted by the decor," said Bresset.
An intricate 1781 desk on eight legs inlaid with mahogany and decorated in gilded bronze is a veritable safe, complete with 17 drawers, some of them secret, and 2 retractable writing surfaces at different heights - all controlled by just one key.
An armchair built in 1749 for the eldest daughter of Louis XV, Louise Elisabeth, is still covered in its original burgundy silk fabric with gold embroidery, a rarity.
Its over-the-top rococo style was designed to show off the luxuriousness of the French court when its owner brought the chair with her on European travels.
A series of four chairs lined up in a row demonstrate how tastes changed in just 50 years between 1680 and 1730. A focus on solidity morphs to one of comfort as the straight backs begin inclining backwards, arm rests recline and become padded, and hard wood throne-like seats become generously padded.
Reflecting the constant shifts in fashion, furniture design continued to shift in the last half of the century with the return of the straight line.
The elaborate curves that characterized the style of Louis XV straightened, with a new focus on antiquity, characterized by decorations of carved friezes, columns, wreaths and other neoclassical elements.
The show runs through Feb. 22.
Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Tom Heneghan