Design Glossary: Enfilade

Retrospect

One of my personal favorite features of grand historic houses is the enfilade, the way rooms were arranged in a row with doorways lined up so you could see from one end of the row to the other. A creation of the Baroque era, classic enfilades were actually related not just to aesthetics, but to a stately expression of hierarchies and honors. Let's take a look.

Baroque royal and aristocratic design gave visual expression to the principles of absolute rule. During the Baroque era, France and England each endured civil wars that pitted the nobility against the throne. When absolute monarchical rule was reestablished after these uprisings, many royal architectural commissions reflected a programmatic emphasis on strict hierarchies with the King at the top.

Within the Baroque palace, the enfilade [pronounced EN-fuh-LAHD or EN-fuh-LAYD] emphasized the careful and unyielding organization of the interior and, by extension, the state. This was in some ways totally symbolic — the straight line suggesting order, the endless sightlines underlining the luxury of the space and the King's vast resources. But in other ways it was utterly literal. Each room was successively more exclusive, with access limited more and more according to your rank within the court.

Part of this was simply practical: the first room in the enfilade was an entry hall and the last would be the state bedroom, so it naturally became more intimate as you progressed. But even details like whether you were guided through by a servant or by your host, where you were met (at the door or in the middle of the room), and other minutiae, were carefully considered and noticed.

A palace might have several enfilades: one for the king's apartment, one for the queen's apartment, and one for the state rooms, for example. Private homes in the Baroque era might also include an enfiladed suite, if it were a home that a monarch might visit (like Ham House and Blenheim, images 3 & 4 above).

Today, enfilades are occasionally included in contemporary houses because they offer a nice sense of flow through the space (image 5). They also allow for lovely connections or juxtapositions between the decoration of different rooms. And perhaps there's still a vestigial sense of honor in making a stately progress through an enfilade.

What do you think, elegantly grand or over-the-top?

Images: 1. Versailles photographed by Robert Polidori for the book Parcours Museologique Revisite, via Habitually Chic; 2. Tsarskoye Selo via Cote de Texas; 3. Ham House, photo by John Hammond for the National Trust; 4. Plan of Blenheim Palace via artmumble; 5. Parisian apartment designed by Chahan Minassian in French Architectural Digest, via Habitually Chic.