The Galerie François I at Fontainebleau, c. 1528-39
Last week on Retrospect, we looked at the history of parquet floors, which are hardwood floors arranged in repeating geometrical patterns. This week, let’s look at two of the earliest and most enduring parquet patterns: herringbone and chevron. Lately I’ve been pinning herringbone floors on my Pinterest with abandon, I’m so in love with the look. But it took a second look before I realized there were actually two distinct patterns. Do you know the difference between them?
Both herringbone and chevron floors are composed of pieces of wood of equal size arranged in a zig-zag pattern. Herringbone is when the planks are cut in perfect rectangles and then staggered a bit, so the end of one plank meets the side of another (um, this is much easier to explain visually than verbally, so please refer to the above illustration). The chevron pattern occurs when the wood planks are cut on an angle so the ‘zig’ meets the ‘zag’ along a perfectly straight axis.
Godolphin House, Cornwall
Herringbone floors may have been the first parquet pattern developed in Europe, perhaps because it simply involved turning the wood planks at an angle, and it also echoed zig-zag brickwork that had decorated churches and other buildings for centuries. In fact, back when people had dirt floors in their home, some homemakers would scatter sand on the floor and then sweep it into decorative patterns, including a chevron pattern. So it makes sense that it would have quickly become a popular option once wood floors became de rigueur.
One of the earliest extant instances of wood herringbone is in the François I Gallery Fontainebleau in France (see top image). The floor was installed in 1539, during Francois I’s reign, and was designed and produced by Italian craftsmen whom François had hired away from Italy. This corroborates descriptions from the era that refer to parquet as an Italian technique, but I have not found any images of Italian wooden herringbone floors from the 16th century (though there are tile and brick herringbone floors).
In French, the herringbone pattern is known as batons rompus, which literally translates to broken sticks, and supposedly comes from a specific drum beat from military history. More recently, the phrase not only refers to the pattern, but also to something disorganized, like an excited conversation.
Flame stitch from the late-16th century, a variation on the Point de Hongrie embroidery stitch
The chevron pattern is known as point de Hongrie, after a kind of embroidery stitch that came into style during the 16th century (an example, above). It’s unclear why the stitch was named for Hungary, since it is most commonly associated with Italy, but it may have been named for the 13th-century Saint Elisabeth of Hungary.
The Queen’s Guard Room at Versailles
In his description of the palace of Versailles in the 1690s, the Swedish architect Nicodermus Tessin wrote that there was only one room at Versailles where the parquet was laid in squares. He might have been referring to the Queen’s Guard’s Room, the only room with chevron floors instead of the now-famous parquet de Versailles.
Paul Signac, Un Dimanche, 1888-90
The style enjoyed a major renaissance during the Hausmann era in 19th-century Paris, when much of the city was rebuilt in a large scale urban planning effort. Many of the new apartments featured parquet floors in either the herringbone or chevron pattern.
A variation on Chevron or Point de Hongrie is Fougère, or “fern,” which inserts a straight plank along the axis
Today the style is less current than simple plank floors in different finishes, but for me, it will always be the height of beauty. I think my preference is for the herringbone version, with its more dynamic texture, but I also like the structure and regularity of the chevron. Which is your pick?
Images: 1 The François I Gallery at Fontainebleau, c. 1528-39, via Wikipedia 2 Chevron/herringbone illustrations from the Dictionnaire Encyclopédique et Biographique de l’Industrie et des Arts Industriels via Google Books 3 Godolphin House, Cornwall, c. mid-17th-century, via Treasure Hunt 416th-century flame stitch based on the point de Hongrie at Parham House, England, via Bargello Arts 5 The Queen’s Guard Room at Versailles 6 Paul Signac, Un Dimanche, 1888-90, via Wikipedia 7Parquet fougère (fern), via Antikita