Design in Practice: Stylin’ Too

Design in practice

Photo courtesy Winterthur

Last week I started down the slippery slope of defining some of the differences between the various periods of furniture (read it here). This week, I’m just jumping off the cliff.

Even if you’re not into period furniture, this series of posts can help you understand where your style of furniture came from. The whole idea is, everything is based on what has come before and everything is recycled somewhere.

Picking up from where I left off last time, the introduction of the cyma curve dramatically changed design. It picks up the rake, or angling, of the back in relation to the seat but adds a bit of flair and comfort to the design as well.

Another difference, one I didn’t get to talk about last time, is the shift from a closed back to an open one. The backs of the chairs are consolidating towards the middle. Instead of a solid panel connecting the rear legs, there’s some open space between them and the part you lean against when seated. This is an insinuation of things to come – the splat.

Design in practice

Photo courtesy Winterthur

There are a couple of things that happened as style moved from William & Mary to Queen Anne. First, the lower back rail moved down on top of the back seat rail (there’s no longer a space between the seat and the back). Second, if you look at the crest rail on the first chair in the post, you can see the shape transitioning towards the rounded corners of the Queen Anne chairs (as in the second chair in the post…that crest rail is often called an “ox yoke crest” because it looks like…wait for it…the yoke on an ox cart).

Design in practiceYou’ll also notice the consolidation of the back is complete with the inclusion of the solid splat. You are also getting some Asian influence in the splat with the urn shape. The cabriole legs and compass seat pull more curvaceousness into the design.

If I were to sum up the difference between William & Mary and Queen Anne in just a few sentences I would do it this way. On Queen Anne chairs the cyma curve not only added grace but comfort. Craftsmen at the time ran amok with curves – adding them to the shape of the seat and legs as well. They tightened up the look of the back by bringing the back rail down on top of the back seat rail (it also changed names and became the “shoe”). The chairs lightened in appearance with a consolidated solid splat and a curvaceous crest. In a word Queen Anne is curvy.

Design in practiceOnce started down this road, it didn’t take long (a couple of decades or so) before someone lightened up the look a little more by piercing the back splats and adding a bunch of carving – enter Thomas Chippendale.

Okay, so he didn’t invent the style even though he published “The Gentleman’s and Cabinetmaker’s Director” in 1754 showing what he purported to be “a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern taste.” What began with Queen Anne reached its peak with Chippendale – the China trade.

Let’s face it, more people traveled and were exposed to various cultures that influenced the things they had to sell to those who didn’t travel. If every merchant in town is selling local goods, and you have access to goods from halfway across the globe, you have a marketing angle.

For our purposes, however, we need to look not at the economics but the design changes that came about from Chippendale’s best seller. Punching holes in the splat did lighten things up but it also allowed the makers to adorn them with carved vegetation. This is a result of not only bringing in Chinese, Greek and Roman influences into the furniture but French – enter Rococo.

Design in practice

Photo courtesy Winterthur

Design in practice

Photo courtesy Yale Gallery of Art














In the Chippendale chair on the above left you can see the Asian influence on crest rails. Notice how the overall design of the crest has a similar look to the roof of a pagoda. This creates “ears” on the crest (unlike the ox-yoke crest of Queen Anne) – another telltale sign a chair is Chippendale in design. The feet on the same chair are called French scroll feet and you can also see the acanthus leaf carving on the knees of the legs. That little bit of rope carving around the bottom edge of the seat rails is called gadrooning.

Using the same summation style as I did for Queen Anne furniture, Chippendale chairs have eared crest rails and pierced back splats. Some still have cabriole legs but straight legs were what Chippendale would have considered the most fashionable (but Americans stuck with cabriole legs even though the fashion had changed considerably in England). You’ll also see lush vegetation carved into the various elements as well as bits of Gothic and Asian architecture adapted into the designs.

In the next “Design in Practice” post I’ll drag us through the Federal period all the way into the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. There’s lots of ground to cover in a very narrow vein. When all this is done and we get back to comparing designs, I’ll point out some of these characteristics on other forms as we go. Even with these encyclopedia sized posts I’m only scratching the surface of design so, be sure to post your questions in the comments (or you can email me by clicking on my name below).

— Chuck Bender










12 thoughts on “Design in Practice: Stylin’ Too

  1. jigsawjohn

    Planning a trip east in the fall. Which museums in the Williamsburg area to Boston would you recommend for someone with an interest in period furniture? The following from Williamsburg south.

  2. Sven in Colorado

    You touched on the American stylistic variations. That is a field of study all to itself! Beginning in the Queen Anne era, regional differences started to show up. They were fully realized in the Chippendale era. The most obvious was the influence of the Goddard and Townsend workshops in Newport, CT. The New York, Philadelphia and Boston “schools” all had signature stylistic differences that can be traced to prominent individuals or groups of architects / designers / craftsmen.

    Thanks for this series! I’m enjoying it very, very much.

    1. Chuck BenderChuck Bender Post author


      Regional differences actually started well in advance of the Queen Anne period. The differences are a little more subtle but they are present. When we look at the earliest pieces made in this country there are always variations of primary and secondary woods from region to region but there are also regional design differences. As you say they are often traced to prominent craftsmen but they are also linked to social, cultural and religious differences of the people in those regions.

      I’ve spent over 35 years studying (and building) period furniture – living outside Philadelphia most of my life help facilitate that education. It is my sincere hope that I can share with the PWM readers a good portion of what I’ve learned. These posts are based primarily on what I’ve found crawling around some of the best museums and private collections in the country (as well as a fairly extensive library of reference material…but nothing beats seeing things in real life).

      You used the word “touched” and that’s exactly what I can accomplish in a blog post. That’s the reason I want people to engage and ask questions. The only way we can all benefit from this is to keep the discussion going. I’m not (necessarily) trying to pontificate but open a discussion in the hope that someone will offer information I still lack.

      The “Design in Practice” posts are geared toward the aesthetics while the construction details happen in the “Furniture Details” posts.

      1. pmac

        In a future post, ( or here) would you please list some of the titles in your reference library so we can dig deeper? Thanks.

  3. cebuchan

    This series is really something I look forward to from one installment to the next. Very useful. I, too, like construction details as well as design elements since they are often so closely related. Thank you and keep them coming!

  4. Bryan Robinson

    This is a very interesting series and I am enjoying it. I hope we can look at the construction a bit more as you did in the post about chairs a couple weeks ago. Are the row of tacks in the W&M chair are a sort of gadrooning feature as well?

    1. Chuck BenderChuck Bender Post author

      Thanks, glad you’re liking it. Hopefully, it’s educational at the same time. We will definitely be covering construction a lot more in the days to come.

      The brass tacks are functional and decorative but I’m not sure one can make the leap that they are the inspiration for gadrooning. They provide necessary hold for the upholstery as well as a visual break and shadow lines…but that’s a topic for a different discussion.

    1. pmac

      Should read: “Ask or a pay raise. These posts are great.”
      (I don’t know what happened to the last half of the post. I suspect my ipad, it’s been acting weird lately.)

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