If we begin by looking at how seating designs changed in America from the Jacobean to the William & Mary period, we can see some radical things happening. While the joint stool remained popular throughout the Colonial period, chairs saw the greatest changes. Chairs from the Jacobean (or Pilgrim) period primarily fell into two groups: turner chairs and joiner chairs. The turner chairs had rush or splint seats and were typically of ladder-back construction. They tended to be rather straight-backed in nature. Most Shaker chairs emulate the turner chairs of this period.
Jacobean joiner chairs were of frame-and-panel construction with plank seats. They, too, tended to be rather straight-backed in nature. With the shift to the William & Mary design sense, we see the joiners’ chair backs become canted for comfort. The backs were at a distinct angle to the seats. We also begin to see how the chairs shifted from having parts that were cut out to emulate turnings to incorporating turnings into the frame-and-panel construction. The back construction changed in that the panels began to lift off the seat, giving the chair a lighter appearance. Once the back rail lifted off the seat, chair backs began to shift from frame-and-panel construction to slatted backs with carved crest rails. This also led to frame construction with the use of caning and leather for the seats and backs of chairs.
The turners’ chairs of the William & Mary period also saw shifts in design and construction techniques. We begin to see canted backs on them as well. This meant cutting the rear legs out of a larger plank of wood, then offset turning them to create the decoration for the chair. We can see a shift from the ladderback style to frame construction with slatted, caned and upholstered backs. We even see fully upholstered easy chairs come into vogue. Comfort was being firmly ushered into the world of chairs.
The design aspect of William & Mary chairs also deserves some consideration. For the first time, chairs became something more than a stool with a back (and possibly arms). Chairs began to take on more than merely a function. They began to become visually pleasing, and to make a statement about the owner’s decorating taste. In essence, chairs became, for the very first time, works of functional art.
If we look at case furniture, we see the same radical changes occurring. Instead of utilitarian boxes that sat on the floor or ground (depending on whether your home had a floor or not), we began to see chests gracefully suspended in the air by sinuous legs. We also began to see the use of highly figured and sometimes exotic woods, and veneers being used as “decoration” instead of relying on turned or low-relief carved elements.
Another area of refinement in case furniture was the growing use of brass hardware. This brass hardware wasn’t merely a utilitarian addition. Pulls and escutcheons were made in decorative forms or had pictorial chasing; that added interest to the overall piece. These brasses were set against the background of polished wood. Again, for the first time, hardware became more than a functional method of opening and closing doors and drawers. It became an integral part of the design of the piece of furniture. It added to the artwork’s function.
Quintessential William & Mary
As noted earlier, the biggest contribution to furniture design from the William & Mary period is the highboy, or high chest. If you’ve ever looked at a Philadelphia Chippendale or a New England Queen Anne highboy and thought, “There’s a masterful balance of joinery and ornamentation” (c’mon, I think that stuff all the time), you have William & Mary to thank. If not for them, the highboy might never have been introduced into our vernacular. And it all began with those crazy bun feet.
When builders began to raise chests off the ground, the first method was to extend the corner posts of the frame-and-panel construction to create a space between the floor and the box. It wasn’t long before the turners got hold of the design and began adding Dutch-influenced bun feet to chests. Why can’t you make something both beautiful and functional? The stuff in the chest really needed to be up off the dirt floor, and those stump feet are fairly plain. So, why not add a bit of style and flash? (That’s 17th-century “bling,” for you younger readers.)
From there, it didn’t take long to stretch those bun feet into legs. Adding legs to support the chest gave the piece a much lighter look while adding practicality. A chest on legs made it easier to get into the drawers. It also put the chest squarely in your line of sight, making it the perfect showcase for those polished, figured veneers and shiny brass hardware. Again, William & Mary added form to function.
Additionally, there was a clear shift in construction methods. High chests, or highboys, were essentially dovetailed boxes set on legs. Prior to this period, chests were primarily of frame-and-panel construction. By shifting to the dovetailed box method of construction, larger flat surfaces were created that facilitated the use of the figured veneers.
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