One of the most famous and copied styles of antique furniture is that which was influenced and made by Thomas Chippendale. Chippendale made and designed furniture in two main styles. From 1753 when he moved into his St. Martin's Lane location where his business was operated for 60 years, to around 1762 his furniture was in the style that is called Rococo. In 1762 his furniture began to show the influences of Neoclassicism. This evolution was largely due to market demands of the time.
According to the book Chippendale Furniture by Anthony Coleridge, Rococo style in furniture refers to a piece "in which the decoration takes the form of living organisms combined with the natural, and essentially asymmetrical, mixture of bestial and rocklike features." Because this definition is somewhat vague, many of the furniture makers of this time were able to put their own influence on the design of their pieces.
This design style features throne-like chairs that are often upholstered in velvet and gilded in gold. Ornate carving details are seen in all of the pieces from tables to bed frames. The carving typically illustrates natural elements with sea shells being among the most frequent.
The Rococo style originated in France, but by 1730 was fading in French furniture making. It was at this time that English designers began to pick up the style. The first time we see the influence in England is about 1736 when a book entitled 60 Different Sorts of Ornaments by Gaetamo Brunetti was published. This publication showed designs for furniture which incorporated both the Italianate style and the Rococo motifs which were to become so popular. In particular this book featured show work and scrolling foliage on furniture.
The late 1730s through the early 1760s were hugely popular time for the Rococo style of furniture in England. There were several other books published in this time frame that created more demand for the seller’s furniture. One of the most important of these publications was The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director by Thomas Chippendale usually simply known as The Director.
One of the main reasons for Chippendale's great fame and influence on the styles of furniture during this time period and through today is because of his publication The Director. This publication provided patterns for Rococo style furniture and also the Chinese and Gothic styles that it influenced.
The first edition of The Director was published in London in 1754. It was the first book of its kind to be published on furniture design. The book was extremely influential and showed almost every type of mid 18th century English furniture design. It is believed that its publication led to many orders for Mr. Chippendale's shop.
Some evidence of just how busy and influential The Director was making Thomas Chippendale can be seen in an insurance claim for a fire that happened in his shop in 1755 and also from a report in the Gentleman's Magazine. This report stated "the fire broke out in the workshop of Mr. Chippendale, a cabinet maker near St. Martin's Lane, which consumed the same, wherein were the chests of 22 workmen together with a three-story building extending the full 180 feet west of the site and joining the shop warehouse." Luckily, Mr. Chippendale's shop was insured just 3 months prior and he was able to immediately rebuild.
The patterns published in this book were not only used by Chippendale, but were also used by many other cabinet makers. It is the influence of The Director that at least in part caused Chippendale to be the first furniture maker to have his name associated with a particular style. Prior to Thomas Chippendale furniture styles were typically named after monarchs.
The descriptive term Chippendale when it applies to furniture is derived from the book of furniture designs that he made. The term Chippendale furniture does not necessarily mean a piece came from Thomas Chippendale's shop, but rather that it was made during this time period and in the style that he influenced.
The influence of The Director can be felt even today with reprints still available - quite an accomplishment for a furniture maker from the 18th century.
Because of his business savvy in publishing and in cabinetmaking Thomas Chippendale is one of the most influential furniture makers of this time period. While there were other cabinet makers that have since been rediscovered, none of them can eclipse Chippendale.
While Rococo is evident in Chippendale's early work, he brought a unique and new interpretation, lightening the lines and adding a sense of balance and proportion. His hallmarks were form, symmetry, balance, and harmony.
Any time you look at Chippendale's work you will find luxurious carving. A few of his designs have very little ornate carving, such as his tea-table and some hall tables, but for the most part his furniture is very ornate.
Perhaps the most famous of Mr. Chippendale’s signatures is his ribbon pattern chair backs. They were a revolution in English design and one of his most admired styles even today. They have a lightness, grace and elegance that was new at the time.
In the book The furniture designs of Chippendale Hepplewhite and Sheraton by J. Monroe Bell it states that "Chippendale was a pioneer, is designed to wide circulation, and his genius impresses so on the art of his generation."
One of the most distinctive elements of Chippendale furniture is the Cabriole legs found on many of his pieces. These curving legs are elegant and beautiful. Not all styles of Chippendale furniture have these legs, but it is a very common trait.
Another common trait of Chippendale pieces is the type of wood that was used. Mahogany was used in the finest examples with maple and cherry used in less expensive versions.
Very much like the high-quality wood that was used, upholstered pieces used very high quality fabrics.
One of the challenges collectors today face is determining what is and what is not original. Chippendale reproductions proliferated during the early 1900s in the late Victorian period. These pieces are antiques in their own right, but are not what collector's are looking for when they refer to Chippendale design.
There are several hallmarks of Chippendale furniture that you can look for, although when investing in any antique it is always good to get a professional appraiser's opinion. That way you are assured that what you are buying is an original and not a reproduction.
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