Collecting Antique Furniture

Of all the collectible antiques, the broad category of furniture is perhaps the most widely held and most satisfying. Frequently handed down through generations, the various chairs, tables, cabinets and other pieces are often in use, adding character and constancy to our daily lives. Regardless of whether they are purchased or inherited, their use in creating living spaces adds a special dimension to the collecting of antique furniture as people frequently seek to establish a particular theme or mood.

The history of furniture is intrinsically linked with the history of architecture. Whether one is considering the wardrobe of a 17th century noble, a chair from a pioneer cabin, or a desk from a 20th century executive office, the style, craftsmanship and materials reflect the architecture of the time and place.

Historical Periods and Antique Furniture Styles

Antique furniture is described and valued by a number of criteria, some of which overlap. As one might expect it is common to assign a piece to a specific time period. Other classifications include the country or region, the type, the style, the wood, and the manufacturer.

Historical periods are frequently identified by the name of a monarch and associated with the time of their reign. This association is at best a convenience, and at its worst a source of confusion as styles never transition cleanly along these timelines.

Another potential source of confusion is the association of a style with a particular designer's name. Renowned designers of the 18th and 19th centuries published drawings on which shops would base their work and their names became associated with those styles. Frequently pieces described by names such as Chippendale, Sheraton or Hepplewhite are not based on specific designs, but merely have one or more stylistic signatures.

With a subject as vast as antique furniture, no single authoritative listing of periods and styles exists. As you research furniture topics, expect to find disagreement among your sources and at times outright contradictions. With that said, what follows is an attempt at a representative sampling of some of the more commonly accepted designations.

Gothic (1100-1600): Characterized by solid severity. Influences on this period include Roman architecture as well as church architecture. Typically massive oak pieces, gothic furniture features pointed arches, carved panels, and spiral turned legs. Later periods, notably 18th century England and 19th century America, saw revivals of the Gothic stylings.

Elizabethan (1558-1603): Corresponds with the reign of England's Elizabeth I. Elizabethan is considered a transitional period retaining the heavy oak Gothic stylings, and is also associated with England's Renaissance.

Jacobean (1600-1650): spans the last years of England's Elizabeth I and the reigns of James I and Charles I. Jacobean is less ornamented than earlier Elizabethan pieces ultimately taking on a frugal, stern character. Oak and pine are both common. Spiral turned legs are frequent. The Jacobean style was seen throughout the colonies and is one of the first to appear in America.

Louis XIV (1643-1715): Corresponds with the reign of the French king. Associated with the courts in Versailles and Paris it shows Italian influence and an ostentatious flair. The style is known for elaborate inlays and grandiose size.

Louis XV (1715-1774): Corresponds with the reign of the French king. Louis XV is associated with a steady movement away from weighty to a more light-hearted, delicate feel. Rosewood and fruit woods are in use and gilded cabriole leg fauteuils appear.

William & Mary (1690-1725): Loosely associated with the reign of England's William III (1689-1702), an English style that became popular in the American colonies. The style is characterized by cabinetry of walnut and maple woods, with veneering and the use of hinged lids on desks.

Queen Anne (1700-1750): Associated with reign of England's Queen Anne (1702-1714). An American and English style featuring the cabriole leg and cyma curve. Walnut, maple, cherry and mahogany are all in use.

Chippendale (1750-1800): Named for English furniture designer Thomas Chippendale. Often described as a masculine interpretation of the Queen Anne style, Chippendale is characterized by a large, formal elegance, ball-and-claw feet on cabriole legs, and carved patterns featuring such motifs as tassels, diamonds, or scrolls. The period sees the introduction of the now standard breakfront. The style saw similar woods to Queen Anne with mahogany, walnut, maple and cherry in use.

Sheraton (1750-1805): Named for English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton. In 1791 he began publishing "The Cabinet Maker's and Upholsterer's Drawing Book," a four volume work that was widely distributed among craftsman. A significant influence on the Neo-Classical movement, Sheraton's designs are known for turned Corinthian column legs, elegance and proportion.

Hepplewhite (1790-1820): Named for English furniture designer George Hepplewhite whose "Cabinet Makers and Upholsterer's Guide" was published posthumously in 1788. Known as the Federal style in America, Hepplewhite is a Neo-Classical style characterized by simplicity, inlaid details, and motifs including shields, hearts and urns.

Empire (1820-1840): Associated with the reign of France's Napoleon I. Empire is an extension of earlier Classicism with characteristics inspired by discoveries of Greek and Roman antiquities, and later incorporating Egyptian motifs after successful campaigns in Egypt.

Biedermeier (1815-1860): A German style that spread throughout Europe, Biedermeier is considered a reaction against English and French rococo and a simplification of the Empire style. The style is characterized by simple designs focused on comfort and functionality without unnecessary adornment.

Victorian (1837-1901): Associated with the reign of England's Queen Victoria, the defining aspect of the Victorian era is the Industrial Revolution. Mass production of furniture began, making higher quality and more elaborate furniture available to more people. Victorian furniture is known for heavy ornamentation. The Victorian era encompasses a good many sub-styles. Designers of the day reached back into history for inspiration and there were a number of stylistic revivals including Gothic, Rococo, and Renaissance.

Eastlake (1870-1900): Associated with the English architect and designer Charles Locke Eastlake whose book "Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details" influences styles on both sides of the Atlantic. The Eastlake Movement was something of a rebellion against Victorian embellishment and is characterized by simpler designs championing craftsmanship.

Arts and Crafts (1860-1940): An international movement that influenced all of the decorative arts including furniture. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to industrialism. Furniture of this period is rustic looking and appears to be made by hand.

Some Important Furniture Terminology

Acanthus: The acanthus plant is one of the most common for use in creating decorative ornament. Frequently found on the knees of chair and table legs.

Apron: The apron is a shaped panel below a chair's seat, connecting the seat and legs, used for both decoration and added strength.

Armoire: An armoire is a large, two-door cupboard typically used for storing clothing.

Baluster Leg: A baluster leg on a chair or table is a turned and shaped columnar piece.

Bas D'Armoire: A bas d'armoire, also called a lowboy, is a small cupboard with drawers and one or two doors.

Bezel: A bezel describes a metal rim framing a glass.

Bracket Foot: The bracket foot is a short, basic foot found on cabinets and chests. It is shaped like a bracket and typically has a mitered corner.

Breakfront: A breakfront is a furniture piece with a center section protruding or projecting beyond the sides.

Cabriole: Cabriole legs are modeled after animal legs having opposing convex and concave curves forming an S-shape.

Divan: A divan is a couch or day-bed that lacks arms and back.

Dovetailing: Dovetailing is a method of joining wood by cutting wedges (dovetails) in one piece that mate with a properly shaped slot in the adjoining piece.

Fauteuil: The fauteuil chair is an upholstered chair with arms and open sides.

French Foot: The French foot is a slender, out-turned version of the bracket foot.

Grisaille: Grisaille refers to a monotone, gray painting style used to simulate carved marble bas-reliefs.

Highboy: A highboy is a tall chest of drawers, typically a mix of larger and smaller drawers sitting atop long legs.

Marquetry: Marquetry refers to an elaborate decorative inlay of different colored woods, mother-of-pearl or similar materials forming arabesques, floral designs and other patterns.

Mitre: A mitre is a joint that forms a corner, usually joining two pieces of wood that have been cut at 45 degree angles.

Mortice: A mortice is slot cut into wood that accepts a matching projection called a tenon.

Ormolu: French for "ground gold," ormolu refers to a technique of using gilded brass or bronze for furniture mounts and other decoration.

Parquetry: Parquetry is a decorative inlay similar to marquetry but using geometric patterns.

Serpentine: Literally "snake like," serpentine refers to a convex curve flanked by two concave curves.

Windsor: Taken from the name of an English town where furniture was sold, Windsor refers somewhat generically to a style of chair made up of a solid, sculpted seat to which straight legs and back spindles are directly attached.

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