Arts & Mysteries: Shaping the Splat


Building a Philadelphia Chippendale chair – Part 4
By Adam Cherubini
Pages: 24-27

From the April 2009 issue #175
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I’m continuing with my reproduction of an 18th-century Philadelphia side chair. These chairs are often called “Chippendale chairs,” no doubt referring to the London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale who published a book of his designs in 1754. Chippendale’s “The Gentleman & Cabinetmaker’s Director” (reprint available from Dover Press) contains images largely of rococo furniture. Even in the first printing, Chippendale did not include many of the design elements typically associated with Philadelphia “Chippendale” chairs. No ball-and-claw feet were depicted. Chippendale preferred the seat upholstery to cover the seat rails, a feature rarely seen on Philadelphia Chippendale side chairs (though it would emerge in later styles). And the scant dimensions offered by Chippendale aren’t apparent in Philadelphia side chairs. So why do we call them Chippendale chairs when the dimensions are different, the feet are different and the upholstery is different?

I think the reason is that the designs of the Philadelphia chairs’ backs are often very similar to those shown in Chippendale’s book. Chippendale’s rococo designs, replete with ribbons, bellflowers and acanthus leaves, were a significant departure from the earlier baroque solid-splat chairs. We know at least that some prominent Philadelphia cabinet and chairmakers either had copies of the “Director” (including Thomas Affleck and possibly Benjamin Randolph) or had access to a copy through The Library Company of Philadelphia (of which several notable Philadelphia cabinetmakers were members). A few surviving chairs are near-exact copies of illustrations in Chippendale’s seminal book.


From the April 2009 issue #175
Buy this issue now