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Chippendale Changed the Way Furniture Looked

Bob Brooke

Most people associate Thomas Chippendale with Chippendale furniture of Philadelphia. But he actually lived and worked in England. Only his designs made it over the great pond. Thomas Chippendale's new and different-looking chairs and tables were the vogue in England, but it was at least 1755 before cabinetmakers in America copied any of Chippendale's designs.

And while cabinetmakers in Philadelphia used walnut and mahogany for their designs, those in Bermuda used native cedar, stained to look like mahogany. These Bermuda pieces can fool many collectors. However, the cedar has a decidedly warm orange tinge to it which distinguishes it from mahogany.

His book The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, first published in 1754, was the most important collection of furniture designs that had been issued in England. His furniture enriched England from 1745 to 1770, and his influence was strong in this country from 1755 to 1790. Chippendale brought new and fresh ideas, but above all, his furniture was always carefully fitted and joined. Mahogany, which appeared about 1750, became his favorite wood. At first, it was often finished to resemble walnut, the fashionable wood after 1702.

Chippendale's designs fall into four general styles. One, using such motifs as lions, masques, eggs, and darts, might be called English. For a time, too, many of Chippendale's pieces borrowed from the rococo appearance of French Louis XV furniture and were really an embellishment of the simpler Queen Anne style by means of elaborate lines and touches. Some of his designs reflected the Chinoiserie or Chinese style, with pagoda motifs, bamboo turnings, the claw-and-ball foot, carved latticework, and considerable lacquering, while others showed a Gothic influence, featuring pointed arches, quatrefoils, and fret-worked legs.

He employed carving--which deep and sharp–as his chief decorative technique. And he didn’t limit it to shell carving but extended it to elaborate scrolls, foliage, and gadroons. Chippendale also used gilding, some veneer, and fretwork galleries around small tables and the tops of cabinet pieces as other forms of decoration.

Under Thomas Chippendale's guidance, bedsteads became less pretentious although still handsome. This was the age of the four-poster bed, and in this country at least the hangings were not quite so all-enveloping. A short valance began to replace floor-length draperies. Sometimes, he used a curtain across the back of the bed and perhaps side curtains at the two rear posts. These beds became known as tester or canopy beds. Sometimes a headboard came into sight.

Chippendale became especially known for his secretaries and desks. The slant-top desk he designed had came with either a straight or serpentine front.

He also was the first to design the Pembroke table. This was an individual style of drop-leaf table with an oblong or rectangular fixed center piece with a drawer beneath, and two comparatively narrow drop leaves, either squared or shaped. Still another of his innovations was the fretwork gallery used on small tables on which china could be displayed.

But side chairs and armchairs were Chippendale's masterpieces. No one ever did so many things to make them look different. Unbelievable versatility distinguished the backs, which always had a distinctive pattern, and he gave both the vertical-splat back and the ladder back with horizontal splats new treatment.

Some of his elegantly carved ladder-backs are also called ribbon-backs. Pierced splats were sometimes carved to produce a distinctly Gothic impression of arches and pillars. He carved other chairs so intricately as to be almost lacy-looking. Uprights were flat, molded, fluted, or carved. The top rail or crest was scrolled and came to points or "ears" at the corners.

All Chippendale furniture had a solidity that came from careful fitting and joining. However, decorative details kept it from looking heavy.

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