A Short History of Chippendale Furniture
Read up about the history of antique furniture in America, and one name, you’ll notice, keeps coming up with great regularity – Chippendale. The Chippendale furniture style, that you can tell by the artistic and elaborate carving and wood-shaping seen on it, was America’s most successful furniture style of all up until the late 1700s.
The Chippendale furniture style was the creation of Thomas Chippendale, an English craftsman and carpenter who lived in England in the 1700s. At one point in his career, he had the idea that custom-made furniture for the wealthy was a money-spinner. He created a catalog called “The Director” of the most beautiful designs and design elements that he could come up with. The wealthy could come and pick and choose from among the design elements and order a custom piece for themselves. The styles seen in his catalog came from just about every influence you could think of – Rococo, Neoclassical, Gothic – even Chinese.
Chippendale furniture was usually made of high quality Mahogany and sometimes, it was covered over in Veneer. Since elaborate carving was the predominant theme in Chippendale furniture, they usually tended to use solid wood that could take all that carving.
There were always distinct design elements used that helped you identify the design as a Chippendale. For instance, they often used the basic Chippendale-style legs – which were kind of curved like the letter S and had ornate leaves and vines carved in. The leg usually took the form of a ball and claw, a lion’s paw, a club or a spade.
Block-front furniture, which you see identified as Chippendale in America, was never an original Chippendale design. The highboy was another kind of Chippendale-inspired American furniture form. This was a tall chest of drawers that was supported on regular table-like cabriolet legs.
Chippendale furniture with Chinese influences is very popular too – especially as bedroom furniture. They usually come with a kind of black lacquer known as Japan.
If you plan to begin collecting Chippendale furniture, you should be aware that it’s very difficult to find verifiable authentic Chippendale. The craftsman never actually used a signature, a trademark, an emblem or anything. About the only way to actually know for sure is if a piece of furniture comes with the original centuries-old bill of sale. And then of course, it’s even more difficult to find out if an item was made by Chippendale himself. Only the very earliest pieces were made by him.
In America, Chippendale furniture (or rather furniture in that style made by American craftsmen) was produced by skilled craftsmen everywhere from New England to the South (where slave craftsmen made beautiful furniture).
It is said that Thomas Chippendale had to really fight in his time to be paid the prices he asked for. Today, the astronomical prices charged for is furniture would surely gladden his heart.