Design in Practice: Stylin’

design in practice

Photo courtesy Chipstone Foundation

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the roots of Arts & Crafts furniture and, in the comments, reference was made to “what makes a particular furniture style?” From the first time I took a class trip to Colonial Williamsburg (it was the Bicentennial…everyone went to Williamsburg, right?) I was drawn to period furniture – I didn’t know why but I liked it.

I’ve been studying it so long there’s just lots of aspects of it that are second nature to me. So, when I read comments and questions from people stating they don’t know (or can’t get) a definitive answer as to “what makes a particular furniture style?” I’m taken back to when I was a kid watching Mack Headley and his apprentices working away in the Anthony Hay shop (see the CW reference above, if you’re confused). And, because I remember a time when period furniture was a complete mystery to me, I want to share a little of what I’ve learned since 1976.

There’s a couple of things I’d like to get straight right out of the box. First, there are no hard and fast delineations between periods. Sure, if you choose examples from the beginning (or dead in the middle) of two abutting periods you’ll see the variations easily. But, if you look at examples throughout a single period, you will see how the previous period influenced and grew into the current period and then began evolving into the following one. Styles always transition from one to another.

Second, all styles borrow from other cultures and styles. Don’t be upset by that statement – there is nothing new under the sun. So, when you’re looking at Chippendale furniture be sure to look for the French and Chinese influences. They aren’t hard to spot.

Oh! And one more thing, everything repeats.

design in practice

Photo courtesy Winterthur

One of the easiest forms to see the changes from one style to another is on chairs. So, let’s take a trip in the way-back machine and look at a few chairs, shall we?

From the time the Pilgrims settled at Plimoth Plantation (awesome museum, by the way) in the 1620’s until around 1680 to 1700 furniture was primarily the arena of the joiner and turner. This means lots of mortise and tenon joinery on squarish furniture or lots of spindles (see the first chair in the post).

The furniture didn’t change much in style or construction throughout those years. I like to call this stuff Pilgrim Furniture (though some might use the term Jacobean for part of that timeframe). The chairs are the kind you might find in a 16th or 17th century church – stiff and uncomfortable enough that you couldn’t possibly fall asleep during a service. Notice how the backs of the first two chairs are pretty square in relation to the seat.

design in practice

Photo courtesy Yale Gallery of Art

As we move through the 17th century, and get closer to the 18th century, furniture started becoming more stylish and comfortable. Chairs began to include a little rake or angle to the back. This may not seem like a dramatic change but its importance will become more apparent as we move along through the periods.

The important things to remember are: squarish; mortise and tenon construction; lots of turned stuff; and not the kind of seating you’d first think of for curling up and reading a good book or watching a movie.

As you transition from the Jacobean furniture (think adding a little ornamentation to that plain, stiff stuff) to William & Mary things become a little more comfortable and a little more stylish. The employment of ornamental carving, caning and fabrics starts to become more widespread.

You’re still getting plenty of turnings and mortise and tenon joinery but the furniture starts getting a little lighter in appearance.

design in practice

Photo courtesy Winterthur

design in practice

Photo courtesy Chipstone Foundation














Making the leap from William & Mary to Queen Anne isn’t that tough when you introduce the cyma curve. Another big change from earlier chairs is the shift from the crest rail being tenoned into the rear legs (or stiles) to the stiles being tenoned into the crest (the second chair in the post is an exception).

design in practice

Photo courtesy Winterthur

And, because this post is becoming my personal “War and Peace” (or a more timely “A Song of Fire and Ice”), I’ll jump right into the move from William & Mary through Queen Anne and Chippendale in my next “Design in Practice” post. I’ll wrap it all up and move beyond the third quarter of the 18th century in the post after next, meanwhile, if you have questions about the differences between the styles covered today, I’m happy to answer in the comments. I’ll do my best to be brief.

So, remember chair fans, to join us next time – same chair time, same chair channel.

—Chuck Bender

12 thoughts on “Design in Practice: Stylin’

    1. Chuck BenderChuck Bender Post author

      Off the top of my head, the earliest Windsor I can think of in this country was made in the latter part of the second quarter of the 18th century (1740 – 1750…give or take). I’m sure they were made in England for a while prior to that but it’s typical for us to have lagged behind.

      I don’t consider Windsor chairs a “style” of furniture but a form within existing styles. When you look at the turnings and overall design, you can pick out similarities to other forms of furniture during the different periods. Once we started making Windsors here, we didn’t stop for an extremely long time. The latest chairs I can think of were made about a century after the earliest.

  1. Sven in Colorado

    Stephen Anthony here, co- owner and master craftsman at A&E Fine Woodworking, Lakewood, CO.
    I grew up in a household where my Mum and Grandmum scavenged in second hand stores, flea markets and purchased specific styles of painted furniture which they stripped and refinished. What I didn’t know at the time is that they were collecting “Golden Oak” period, catalog furniture and “Eastlake” Victorian furniture. Majored in art in college, and a whole new world opened up as I focused on furniture design and construction. I read Nutting, Cescinsky, Sloan, Margon, the Osburns. The owner of the first shop I worked at handed me a copy of Israel Sack’s ” Fine Points of Furniture – Early American”… My understanding of the world in which we live as artisans completely changed that day.

    Ingrained in our statement of purpose as a business , my partner and I agreed to make continuing education an integral part of what we offer our employees. I have put together power point presentations that discuss socio-political influences on architecture and furniture design during specific periods in history; focused on Britain, Spain,France, Central Europe, Scandiavia and the Americas. The cross-pollination of culture upon culture, including royal houses, and the geo-political climate of the period makes for some lively sessions.

    What you say is true. There is no definitive line in periods.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Chuck BenderChuck Bender Post author

      Your comment illustrates how little I’ve covered on the topic of design. If I keep at it for the next few years, I might begin to scratch the surface.

      What I found, when I had employees, was the more I exposed an apprentice to all of that historical/social/political/cultural impedes for stylistic change the more they began to relate to history in a way they never had before. It’s great seeing people get excited about visiting a museum and even more fun when they can relate it to something they’re personally making. It connects them to the process and the object in a way ordinary, contemporary manufacturing jobs can’t.

      1. Sven in Colorado

        Wow, just reread my comment. It would have helped if I had proofread before I posted. The grammar and syntax is a bit muddy in spots…Heh!

        Chuck, you are absolutely right on. It’s a joy to see an apprentice or journeyman’s eye’s and spirit’s light up as their appreciation and understanding of the art and craft, its historic importance come alive for them. We have taken field trips to antique shops whose owners are amenable to allowing us to study the actual object. It truly is up to us to pass the knowledge on, pass it forward and keep the art and craft alive.

        We have yet to talk the Denver Art Museum into allowing us to look up close and personal at their collection. Given the history of this region, they have a very good collection of Post-Columbian Spanish-American furniture. And that, Chuck, is a whole other world of study!

        1. knothole

          I would love to learn about Post-Columbian Spanish-American furniture. And also more about later periods of Southwestern Style. There was some interesting furniture at Bent’s Fort, probably all reproduction. Wouldn’t you know my old camera quit functioning after taking a couple of pics there.

          1. Chuck BenderChuck Bender Post author

            A little outside my area of expertise. I have a couple of books on Spanish furniture, but it’s just not my bailiwick. I’ll do some reading and see if I feel comfortable writing about it or (more likely) I’ll try to find someone who might be able to speak on the subject intelligently.

  2. pmac

    Speaking of War and Peace, are these posts a precursor to a similarly sized (or larger) volume of “Everything Chuck Knows About Chairs” ?
    (Thanks for the Batman and Mr. Peabody references. )

    1. creatingsawdust

      They should at least be a precursor to a chair article by him in the magazine.

    2. Chuck BenderChuck Bender Post author

      Oh, we’ve already passed “Everything Chuck Knows About Chairs” some weeks ago…

      And the idea of this series is to start people looking at design differently. I plan to get off history (and chairs) in the near future and get back to comparative design. The easiest way to kick up your designs is to look at lots of examples and figure out why some are more successful than others then put that information to use.

      And, Tolstoy…on steroids. That is all.

      1. pmac

        Ok. ” Chuck Bender’s Comparative Design OR Everything Chuck Knows About Period Furniture With Lots of Pretty Picture Examples And Information You Can Use To Figure Out Why Some Designs Are More Successful Than Others And Then Put That Information To Use (With A Special Section On Chairs).” Seems like a long title but I like the idea behind your forthcoming book.

Comments are closed.