Monday, 7 September 2015

Colonial American Design: A Chippendale style Chair

This article is based on a paper I handed while studying for a year at Middlebury College in the US. I followed a great course on American design by Professor Glenn Andres which changed my life! Thanks to him and its course I started working on Design and Decorative Arts. This article is a tribute to my time at Middlebury and to its great professors!

Furniture was an important art in Colonial America and American craftsmen were influenced by European style but they adapted their techniques and styles to their needs. In the Sheldon Museum in Middlebury some of the furniture has characteristics of Colonial America especially an armchair that has a Chippendale style (1755-1790) from the High Georgian period.

Chippendale Style Chair from Henry Sheldon Museum(Middlebury)

            High Georgian arrived in Colonial America around 1750, via publications of English architectural books. English society looked for a more classic architecture and started discovering Italian Renaissance. This new style also spread in furniture and was defined by the ability of craftsmen to mix different styles to create a new style. Thomas Chippendale, who gave his name to this style, compiled in his book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director in 1754, different style of furniture.
            The Sheldon Museum’s armchair respects the proportions that are defined by the “Rule of taste”. The symmetry is one of the keys of these rules and the armchair, even if it has a lot of curves, but it is still perfectly symmetric. The structure with the two legs at the back remains simple and clear. The seat is trapezoidal to stay simple and it is more convenient to sit. The simplicity and clarity of the shape was really important for Thomas Chippendale who emphasised these qualities in his book. In fact they symbolise the classic side of the Chippendale style that was directly inspired by English Classicism. Also the legs are curvy but not as much as the Queen Anne style. Also they have a slight curve for cabriole legs and they finish with a ball and claw foot. Besides they are carved with vegetal motifs probably acanthus leaves coming from a Roman heritage. These feet are a Chinese inspiration with their eagle’s claws. The fabric that is on the armchair can also be seen as a Chinese influence with its pink colour and the fabric looks like silk. Thereby mix of taste is one of the most important characteristics of this style. Besides Chinese influence the armchair is reminiscence of Rococo especially with the curves and the serpentine lines at the top of the back of the seat. These lines are more characteristic of Philadelphia Chippendale that was more influenced by French Rococo. The colour of the armchair can also be interpreted as a Rococo influence with this pastel pink and the motifs of bouquets of flowers. These elements are more feminine and so are related to Rococo style that was more of a women’s style. The armchair has different influences (Chinese, Rococo, Classic) that make it a good example of the Chippendale style.
The Chippendale style reflects a new way of life in the colonies. Colonial America started being well connected with the world. Influences from Europe as for example the discovery of Italian Renaissance through the gaze of English Classicism is expressed in the Chippendale style with the symmetry and French Rococo’s influence in the fabric and the curves of the back seat. Also Chinese influence, in the feet of the armchair, expresses the vitality of the trade between America and China during the 18th century especially in New England. It also reveals a new domestic way of life in which comfort starts being important. America’s prosperity allowed people to focus more on their comfort than utility. The armchair has a big and comfy seat that was made for  private use probably in the bedroom to rest. It expresses a new life in Colonial America that emphasises more privacy and comfort over utility and public representation.

Further readings:
Chippendale, Thomas. 1762. The gentleman and 
cabinet-maker's director being a large collection of 
the most elegant and useful designs of household 

furniture in the most fashionable taste

London: [publisher not identified]. 

Chippendale, Thomas, J. Munro Bell, and Arthur 

Hayden. 1910. The furniture designs of Thomas 

Chippendale. London: Gibbings and Co.

Layton Art Collection, Brock Jobe, and Gerald W. 
R. Ward. 1991. American furniture with related 

decorative arts, 1660-1830New York: Hudson 

Hills Press.

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