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George Hepplewhite - Furniture Designer

Updated on December 1, 2016

The English furniture designer and cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite helped to formulate the graceful Neoclassical style devised by Robert Adam, which became popular in decorative arts and architecture from the 1850s onwards. His early life is obscure but, after an apprenticeship with a Lancaster furniture maker, he went to London and opened a shop in Red cross Street. (After his death in 1786 his widow continued the business.)

Although his name is recognized today, there is no real evidence that Hepplewhite was a popular or fashionable designer in his own time. His reputation rests on the book Cabinet-Maker and Upholster's Guide, published posthumously in 1788 by his widow. Curiously, the designs that were published in his guide do not bear his name and few remaining pieces of furniture can directly be attributed to either his design or his manufacture. Nevertheless, ten designs with his or his firm's name were included in the Cabinet-Makers London Book of Prices, published in the same year as his guide. Sheraton, another famous English Neoclassical furniture designer, while disparaging Hepplewhite in the preface of his own book, Cabinet-Maker and Upholster's Drawing Book (1791), undoubtedly borrowed ideas from Hepplewhite's book published three years earlier.

The style popularized by Hepplewhite in the guide was elegant, restrained and graceful, designed to harmonize with the interiors of the Neoclassical buildings created by Robert Adam. Chairs and sofas have oval, heart and shield-shaped backs decorated with finely carved Neoclassical motifs, such as chains and corn-shucks.

Inlaid satinwood and mahogany were the preferred woods, sometimes with japanned decorations.

The legs of his furniture were straight and tapered and the arms were often formed into scrolls. Delicate patterns traced in glass were used for the doors of bookcases and his small tables, either round or square, often had inlaid tops. The Neoclassical style epitomized by Hepplewhite and Sheraton became widely popular and influenced American cabinetmakers like Samuel McIntire and Duncan Phyfe.

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