Style and Structure in 18th c Furniture

I really love the bold style of William and Mary furniture. Unlike the styles that preceded it, William and Mary features modern construction techniques. Chests and drawers were dovetailed together. Thinner pieces of wood were used. Drawers were no longer side hung. Nails were less prominent. In my mind, William and Mary style furniture represents the beginning of the widespread use of carcass joinery as we know it today.

For the beginning period woodworker, it’s especially attractive in it’s simplicity. The beauty of William and Mary style furniture typically lies in it’s basic proportions, sometimes decorated only with simple scroll work or a scratched double arch bead molding. American examples tend to be more stylistically restrained than the finest English work. English builders incorporated more moldings and often used decorative veneers. Using oak as their base material and good carcass joinery techniques, these pieces are still plentiful and shockingly inexpensive in the UK.

Some pieces also featured what I consider a Dutch or Northern European style of using starkly contrasting woods. Ebonized Oak and lighter woods were used to provide a bold contrast that may have been especially pleasing in the dimly lit, smoky interiors of that time. Today these pieces are uniformly brown, their contrast lost.

In the mid 18th century, new styles built on the success of William and Mary furniture, keeping the basic proportions, and structures, but replacing carved legs with turned, and adding superficial carved elements.

By the time Chippendale’s Rococo style came along, tables and chairs no longer bore any resemblance to William and Mary furniture. Double curved fronts, dripping with carved foliage, stood on legs on which no flat or square surface was evident. But underneath the carvings, tables and chairs were still mortised and tenoned together. Chests and drawers were still dovetailed boxes. I would say that from the early 18th century to it’s conclusion, no new furniture forms were introduced.

I think if you can see the relationships between the styles and separate those relationships in terms of structure and style, you’ll be better able to reproduce furniture or use potions of traditional furniture in your modern furniture. For me, I see Chippendale type furniture as really just William and Mary with carving added. And truly that is exactly what it is. This isn’t to reduce the majesty of the entire Rococo style to just a moonier revision. It’s much more than that. But from the builder’s perspective, it’s still just dovetailed parts, a couple small mortises and tenons and occasionally a frame and panel door.

I’ve written this before but I guess it deserves repeating; If you want to reproduce late 18th century furniture, it’s wise to at least examine early pieces. So I’m on this journey (which is why I’m writing about this). I’m going to do more pieces from later in the 18th c. And there are a few skills I need to add to my repertoire. For mid century work, carving is probably the biggy. I don’t need to rethink how I construct furniture, but I need the skills to affect the ornamentation.

Adam

9 thoughts on “Style and Structure in 18th c Furniture

  1. Bob Easton

    It’s strange to think in terms you describe, simple boxes with lots of Acanthus leaves and scrolls. Yet, it makes perfect sense.

    If you are anywhere near where I think you are, swing through the land of CH on the way home and pick up some really good carving tools. Tey make some of the best in the world.

    "Where I think you are" is based on the time indication on some of the comments, UTC+1:00. Of course that could be either an indication of where your laptop is and how you have configured this blog, or (maybe less likely) a server that Pop Woodworking keeps in that timezone. (between 7 degrees and 22 degrees East latitude)

    In any case, it’s good to see that you have your laptop back and can find a few minutes to share your thoughts. Thanks for those, and thanks for your service. Godspeed.

  2. Jonas H. Jensen

    I tend to agree with the effect by the increased markets.
    From what I have seen of old furniture in museums etc. it seems as the older ones were almost entirely decorated by paint, which could be because it was the only practical way to decorate if the tools did not allow for things such as veneer. But as some people got more money, the urge to copy the upper class (in those days the nobilities or the king), probably made a market for the new style. In Europe a lot of the furniture styles are named after regents of the period. E.g. Louis Seize or Gustaviansk.

  3. Adam Cherubini

    I think tools and materials have always influenced furniture styles. But furniture scholars will tell you that the exhile of Charles 2 and the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire all in a new continental style was the prime cause of change. Folks like Inigo Jones brought Palladian style to England. Georgian is sometimes called Palladian Dutch English Baroque. I also think that the newly industrialized post Fire England created a middle class wealthy enough to afford style. I think markets have had a big effect on furniture over the years. I often think that 18th c makers built for wealthier clients than 19th c furniture makers did.

    Adam

  4. james

    Yeah, it was a really dramatic change from Jacobean furniture forms to W&M, not only in design but construction as well. Was this change brought about by fashion/style alone (as some have argued) or did tools (specifically saws) play a major role?

    This could be one of those which came first type arguments (chicken or egg) but it seems to me quite impossible to produce veneer for instance with an axe and froe.

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