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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Great Georgian Furniture Designers - Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton

Throughout the uneven career of American furniture design three names have always been in its background - Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton. Sometimes they have stood out clearly, when design was good; sometimes they have retreated far, almost to oblivion, when design was bad. Whatever of good has been wrought in American furniture, it is safe to say, has depended on the influence of one of these three men.

Thomas Sheraton
Thomas Sheraton

On the threshold of the year 1939 these names are more important that ever to America, in spite of the growth of that style which for a lack of a better name we call modern and in spite of the sporadic efforts of decorators to turn attention to Victorian, Regency, Baroque or any other period of the past which they have in their bag of tricks.

Furniture that is made and sold today follows one of two sorts of design: either it is modern, with no touch of the past in its ornamentation, or it is traditional, and traditional means, in the majority of cases, the styles of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, & Sheraton.

Thomas Chippendale
Thomas Chippendale

In the days of the Colonies the first furniture with any pretensions to luxury followed the designs of Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director. There were subtle changes, of course, variations in proportion, alterations in the form as in the case of the highboy (called tallboy in England though Chippendale does not use this name) changes in the style of carving an din construction methods. All these things help to differentiate American from English cabinetmaking and were inevitable in a nation that was beginning to assert its individuality.

George Hepplewhite
George Hepplewhite

The books of the three great Englishmen were used by American cabinetmakers generally, for the Chippendale style was made in Philadelphia and in New England simultaneously, though the best American Chippendale is usually conceded to have been a product of Philadelphia. New England seems to have grasped the principles of lightness and delicacy inherent in Hepplewhite's designs a little more firmly than the rest of the country. New York appeared to favor the Sheraton mode a little more than other sections.

The three great designers were all geniuses, and of the three Chippendale is accorded the most acclaim, though he really showed less creative ability than the other two. He was the great adapter of all time and because of his genius he could transmute into consistent unity various heterogeneous elements of design. In general his designs came mostly from the Italian Renaissance with a little French and a little Gothic. Hepplewhite and Sheraton based their styles on classic Greece and Rome, but because of those nations produced little furniture suitable for copy or adapt, their creative power had to originate forms which they could embellish with classical decorative motifs.

The influence of Chippendale persisted in this country through the Revolution. When the war was ended and trade with England was resumed, it was found that a new style was the fashion there - that exemplified by the work of George Hepplewhite. A little later Sheraton designs arrived and on these, through the subtle variations which American ingenuity could not help making, the style loosely referred to as American-Federal was based.

Antiquarians have wondered sometimes how a vogue in London should so quickly have been adopted in this country in the early days. American craftsmen may have had confidence in their own technical and artistic proficiency but their customers did not. Hence the tradesmen catered to this skepticism by advertising their products "as good as could be had in London" and silversmiths sometimes went to the extend of using pseudo-hall marks to make their work resemble English pieces. Because of this regard for goods of English manufacture, competing American craftsmen were eager to supply new styles as soon as possible after they appeared in England. Assuming that a vessel took a month to reach America, it might have been as little as two months after Chippendale's "Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director" was put aboard a boat that some of the designs therein were made up and shown by Philadelphia or Salem cabinetmakers.

After the Revolution there seems to have been no feeling against English goods. The Hepplewhite book and the Sheraton book came to America as soon as they were published and at once the new English style became the new style of America.

Hepplewhite and Sheraton designs continued to be used in America through the Regency period (1811-1820) which itself was based on late Sheraton drawings. Their most famous exponent in America was Duncan Phyfe, though Thomas Connolly in Philadelphia and Michael Allison in New York along with many others not yet identified also based their work on Sheraton's book. Phyfe continued to make well-designed furniture in the Sheraton manner up to the administration of Andrew Jackson, America's first roughneck president. After 1830 the nation's taste sank into a slough of despond which lasted all through the Victorian era and into the twentieth century.

We have Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton to thank really for pulling us out of this slough. Like all other industrial art, furniture design sank in the nineteenth century to an astonishing depth of bad taste which culminated in the Golden Oak period of the 1890s. It was not till the first quarter of the twentieth century was ended that the Renaissance in American furniture design came. Then it began to dawn on certain manufacturers that if they wanted good design they could not do better than to copy eighteenth century styles and the names of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and began to be heard in the land.

At first furniture makers hesitated to reproduce old pieces exactly. The habits of a long period of floundering in design were hard to break. Designers felt that they had to change ornamental motifs, usually by adding something that spoiled the design. They did not realize that the cabinetmakers of the eighteenth century were masters of their craft, which included the artistic as well as mechanical phase.

Those old workmen had an instinct for good design. Their feeling for right proportion was exact. When they adapted, as when the men of Philadelphia adapted Chippendale's style to highboys and lowboys, their innate good taste kept them from inconsistencies. When they changed the scale of a piece their instinctive sense of proportion obviated ungainly effects. They did not evolve a new style but they were entirely competent to do so if there had been a demand for something that did not emanate from England. In their way they were geniuses and ultimately the realization of the fact struck the furniture trade about fifteen years ago.

Now manufacturers visit museums and private collections seeking pieces to copy and their copies ar exact save that occasionally the scale of a piece has to be altered to conform to the space requirements of modern homes. In matters of form, proportion, ornament and detail they strive to follow their models exactly. They have come to realize that Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton and the American cabinetmakers who used their designs made furniture that will be good style as long as the liking for traditional modes persists.

Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton are no longer strange names to the general public. It so happens that at present a keen interest in things of the past is gripping the nation and this interest extends powerfully to furnishings of the home. Cultured people have been educated through the efforts of publications and decorators to discriminate between good and bad design and a little education of this sort makes it more imperative. The books of Chippendale's, Hepplewhite's, and Sheraton's designs have not been easily accessible. Reprinting them is a real service to the cause of beauty in the American home.

Written by Charles Messer Stow - November 1938


ReneeSS said...

LOVE reading about the old designers!!! Thank you for sharing this information. I am a huge fan of Hepplewhite, Chippendale and Duncan Phyfe.

Anonymous said...

Excellent history. Having a historical perspective to apply to today's furniture really helps to decipher styles and designs.

John Miller said...

I really enjoyed that post. The Georgian Era is without a doubt one of my favourite architectural periods.
Georgian Furniture