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Chippendale Furniture

Updated on July 7, 2010

Chippendale Furniture is furniture in the style of Thomas Chippendale, the most famous English cabinetmaker of the second half of the 18th century. This period, the golden age of English furniture design and craftsmanship, was dominated by Chippendale, who designed and manufactured fine furniture at his shop in St. Martin's Lane, London. Chippendale's book of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director . . . , first published in London in 1754, had enormous influence on furniture design throughout Europe and in the United States, and its influence is still felt in the 20th century.

The Director

The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director... went through a second edition with only minor changes in 1759, and a revised, expanded edition in 1762. The copperplate engraved illustrations in The Director were all in the nature of fashion plates and were not intended to be actual working drawings. Most of the pieces were shown with at least two different decorative treatments; a side chair, for instance, might have one front leg cabriole shaped and carved, the other square and fretted, and the seat rail half plain and half fretted. Many of the chairs are shown with an arm at the right and none at the left, thus serving to depict the design as either an armchair or a side chair. Some of the French commode tables show two variations for the same piece, one with full-width drawers and the other with a pair of hinged doors concealing the drawers contained within. With one of the designs for a chest-on-chest, four decorative treatments are shown and most of the plates for pedestal desks show at least two design variations'.

The three editions of The Director present designs for 162 pieces of furniture, 41 decorative accessories, such as girandoles, hanging shelves, and brackets, and 42 details, such as cornices, fretwork, and shields for pediments. To one piece, a breakfast table with narrow drop leaves that Chippendale made for the Earl of Pembroke, he gave the name of his client. As a result "Pembroke" became the standard designation for this type of table during the furniture periods that followed, and still continues to be used.

Relatively few pieces of furniture can be assigned with certainty to Chippendale or his shop. Bills of sale and correspondence from Chippendale are frequently the only means of distinguishing his own work from that of other cabinetmakers who followed the designs of The Director in London and other leading European cities.

Characteristics of the Style

The chief characteristics of the Chippendale school of furniture are structural soundness and solidity, made graceful by the use of flowing lines and well-executed carved details. In scale the pieces are ample enough for comfort and, structurally, they are well adapted to the purposes for which they were made.

Details include bold cabriole legs terminating in claw-and-ball feet, straight molded legs, plain, fluted, or reeded on the outer sides, sometimes ending in the square Marlborough foot; pierced and carved back splats for chairs; serpentine or bowed fronts for chests of drawers and other case, pieces; and broken pediment tops surmounting such tall pieces as secretaries and, in America, highboys and chests-on-chests. Carved ornamentation is done in such motifs as shell, scroll, foliage, and gadroon or Chinese frets. Mahogany was used almost to the exclusion of other woods, except in the American colonies, where some pieces were made of walnut by Philadelphia craftsmen, and of cherry by cabinetmakers of New England.

In general line and proportion the Chippendale style was developed from Early Georgian furniture design which, in turn, was derived from the furniture of the Low Countries with its inherent stiff heaviness. This was replaced by more graceful curves and flowing lines in the early Chippendale. As this style developed, almost simultaneously its breadth and scope were enhanced by elaborate adaptations from furniture of the Louis XV period, known as French manner Chippendale; the Chinese Chippendale in which details were adapted from ornamentation and architecture of the Celestial Empire, and the Gothic Chippendale wherein lines and details reflected Gothic architecture.

The four basic styles of Chippendale furniture are French rococo, Chinese, Gothic, and neoclassic or Adam. Outstanding designs include neoclassic French commode tables, china cabinets and elaborate canopy beds in the Chinese manner, and Gothic breakfront bookcases and sideboard tables.

Influence

In The Director, Chippendale presented ideas for furniture design that had not previously reached beyond fashionable London. A considerable number of provincial cabinetmakers subscribed to the book, and thus his genius as a designer was followed by many working outside the London area.

Eventually, Chippendale's influence spread beyond England. His followers and imitators became so numerous in Ireland and the American colonies that they developed variations of the style that came to be known as Irish Chippendale and American Chippendale. In the American colonies especially, the cabinetmakers of Philadelphia and some of the master craftsmen of New England produced skillful adaptations of Chippendale styles for local tastes. They evolved some of the finest American furniture designs. Distinctive were the highboys and lowboys and cabriole-leg chairs with pierced back splats that came from shops of such Philadelphia craftsmen as William Savery and Benjamin Randolph.

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