I have wanted to drape my walls with fabric at least since my junior year of college, when my roommates and I were charged with a $200 fire hazard fine for our creamy damask ceiling installation. In our defense, there is nothing as evocative and romantic as a tented room, and it has been a dramatic decorating gesture at least since Percier and Fontaine decorated the Napoleon and Josephine's château, Malmaison.
Josephine (image 2), Napoleon's first consort, is often depicted as a wronged woman, and for good reason: he divorced her in 1809 because she didn't bear him any heirs, and this only after years of his flagrant infidelity. On the other hand, she had been unfaithful too, and was a notorious spendthrift, most notoriously on furnishings and textiles for her homes. While Napoleon was away on his Egyptian Campaign, Josephine spent enormous sums of money on Malmaison (image 3), a country château that needed serious renovations. I'm honestly not sure whose side the Marriage Ref would come down on.
At Malmaison, Josephine hired Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, two architects who are often considered the first interior designers. Together, they settled on a tent theme for Malmaison, and created tented rooms for Napoleon's Council Room (image 4), his bedroom (image 5), and even for the château's entrance (image 6). After her divorce, Percier's protégé, Louis-Martin Berthault, redecorated Josephine's bedroom in the style of a luxurious tent (image 7).
Textiles had been used as wall coverings probably since the first caveman figured out how to weave; after all, they provide good insulation and beautiful decoration. But by the Napoleonic era, they were typically tailored neatly against the wall, lined with dados and other paneling, or limited to tapestries. At Malmaison, Percier and Fontaine brought textiles all the way up to the ceiling, draped them swaggily over doors, and even hung them loosely like curtains.
So why the tent theme? The most obvious reasons was to evoke the campaign tents of Napoleon's military victories. The Council Room and the entrance pavilion were both direct military tent references, and allusions to Napoleon's martial prowess were embedded throughout the château, legitimizing his reign (he came to power in a coup d'état).
Luxurious tents and wall hangings were also associated with the ancient Roman Empire (campaign furniture in general was often based on Roman precedents unearthed at sites like Pompeii), and Napoleon liked to link himself stylistically (and politically) to Rome's golden age. The sort of loose, drapey wall hangings found in Josephine's bedroom at Malmaison (in Pompeiian red) and, later, at her boudoir at Compiègne (image 8) seem to be referencing ancient precedents, real or imagined. Painters of the era certainly associated the style with ancient Rome — Napoleon's favorite painter, Jacques-Louis David, painted the Lictors bringing Brutus the bodies of his sons (image 9), and depicted a white cloth draped over majestic columns, bringing the interior to a more human scale. It was also a longstanding convention in French royal portraiture to depict the monarch in front of majestic swags of material. Napoleon self-consciously modeled his own portraits and appearance after the monarchs of the ancien régime (whose regime he had helped to overthrow), and so it may have been a similarly self-conscious statement of luxury and entitlement on the parts of Percier & Fontaine and Josephine to cover their interiors with pricey fabrics.
There was also an alluring Orientalist association with tents, and Napoleon's imperialist forays into the Middle East only continued Europe's decades-long love affair with a romanticized vision of places like Egypt and Turkey. In Britain, victories in India yielded new kinds of war spoils, including a chintz tent re-erected in Powis Castle in Wales (image 10).
Percier & Fontaine were famous in their day not only because of their royal connections, but also because they published albums of their designs for these prestigious interiors. The interiors at Malmaison quickly became famous through these albums, and their designs were copied across Europe and America. You can see a tented room similar to the Malmaison rooms in an 1833 painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the room of Josephine's daughter Hortense's illegitimate son (image 11).
Tented rooms have never lost their appeal. Depending on their context and the fabrics used, they can look crisp (images 1, 12 & 13), exotic (image 14), or airy (image 15). Just make sure, before you pitch your own, that everything is fireproofed, and that you won't get slapped with a fine.
Images: 1 A tented room from the 1950s by Madeleine Castaing, via Emily Evans Eerdmans; 2 Empress Josephine (1808) by François Pascal Simon Gérard, via Wikimedia Commons; 3 Engraved view of the façade of Malmaison, with its tented pavilion entrance by Percier & Fontaine. Engraving by C. A. Garvise, from the early 19th century, via George Glazer; 4 Napoleon's Council Room at Malmaison, via Emily Evans Eerdmans (whose blog posts on this subject are wonderful and very informative); 5 Napoleon's bedchamber at Malmaison, image via Emily and Jim; 6 The tented entrance pavilion at Malmaison, via Emily Evans Eerdmans; 7 Josephine's bedroom at Malmaison, decorated in 1810 by Louis-Martin Berthault, via Waymarking; 8 Josephine's boudoir at Compiègne, again via Emily Evans Eerdmans; 9 Jacques-Louis David's painting, The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), via Wikimedia Commons; 10 18th-century Indian chintz tent, now at Powis Castle in Powys, Wales, via Style Court; 11 Eugène Delacroix's 1833 painting of Charles de Morny's room in Paris, via An Aesthete's Lament, whose extended analysis of the room is hilarious and definitely worth a read; 12 A tented tropical bar by Tony Duquette for Elsie de Wolfe's 1940s Beverly Hills house, "After All," via Tony Duquette.com; 13 A man's tented dressing room designed by Mario Buatta, via Architectural Digest; 14 A tented room by Renzo Mongiardino, inspired by a Turkish tent he saw at a Swedish museum, via Peak of Chic; 15 An image by photographer Guido Barbagelata, via Desire to Inspire.