Furniture Detective: How can we label ‘American style’ furniture if we’re all immigrants?



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We are a nation of immigrants, no discussion. Some of us have been here longer than others and some can even claim they came on the Mayflower, but that’s just a method of transportation, not a pedigree. Some were here long before the Mayflower but even they aren’t really from here. We all came here from somewhere else. And so did most of our long cherished ideas about high style in furniture.

Let’s start with one of North America’s oldest furniture styles, the so-called Pilgrim or Puritan style beginning in the early 1600s. Most of the folks of this period were very recent arrivals and the furniture they crafted for themselves had a very familiar look to it. After taking into account what might be called “regional influences,” meaning the Colonies, the style itself is essentially “Jacobean,” that catch-all Latin term referring to England in the time of King James I, Charles I, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, Charles II and James II. In other words most of the 17th century until William and Mary circa 1688. The furniture was blocky. big, solid, dark and ungainly, mostly made of oak – just like at home. The Colonists were true to their heritage.

Early in the 18th century the effects of the William and Mary reign became felt in American furniture thought. It took a few years to get here, but the Colonies always lagged behind, transportation being what it was. The Dutch craftsmen employed by William introduced a new, lighter, more comfortable form with bun or Spanish feet, elegant turnings and decorations and teardrop pulls and they influenced Colonial furniture in turn. Some of America’s most prized antiques are Colonial interpretations of William and Mary.

After William’s death in 1702, Mary’s little sister Anne became Queen of England and the Colonies dutifully imported (belatedly, of course) the newest style named after the new queen. The Queen Anne style was slim and elegant with graceful curves, subtle decoration, slipper or pad feet and valanced skirts, all in all a very feminine form. This English style also created some of America’s most cherished works.

Just as Thomas Chippendale borrowed the Queen Anne style in 1750, adding dogears, pierced splats and heavy acanthus carving and calling it his own, the Colonies borrowed the new style from Thomas and used it right into the Revolution, being careful not to call it “Georgian” as the later version of the style was known in England.

At long last the Revolution! Surely this called for a new American styling and so it was called “Federal” in honor of the new country based on federal rather than royal principles. So who were the great designers and builders of America’s new furniture? Among the strong stylistic influences were George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, respected English designers of the period. Also prominent were the Adam brothers, Robert and James, English architects greatly influenced by 1st century Roman architecture.

On this side of the Atlantic the best known practitioner of Federal was the Scotsman residing in New York named Duncan Phyfe, whose work was influenced by the early traditional English designers but also by the Directoire and Empire of France and the Regency of England. Phyfe’s contemporary, Charles-Honore’ Lannuier, recently arrived from France worked in the Directoire and later Empire field as his contribution to Federal furniture.

By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, the façade of Federal had fallen to the  unabashed Europhile Empire style, a lasting positive contribution to the world from Napoleon. He had directed his architects to develop a new style for his “Empire” which they enthusiastically did, combining classical motifs from Egypt and Greece with animistic additions such as carved animal feet and wings. Napoleon didn’t make it, but his style survived in England, modified only slightly, as Regency, and in America first as Empire and then in later versions as “Late Classicism” or “Restauration” as late as mid-century. 

Victoria became queen of England in 1837 and started a 60-year binge of digging up and recycling styles of the past, politely called “revivals” under the umbrella label of “Victorian” and America joined the bandwagon. Major revivals of style included Rococo-Louis XV, the revival of a phase of European art of the 18th century featuring rocks (rocailles) and shells (coquilles), Rennaisance, a revival of 15th and 16th century Italian styles, Gothic, a revival of 15th century styles, which was itself a revival of the 9th century as well as other lesser known revivals. It also included a newer form based on the architectural concepts of an Englishman named Charles Locke Eastlake, whose  idea of linear simplicity was driven to absurdity by American factory designers.

A reaction to all this elaborate revival erupted in Europe in the late 19th century led mainly by William Morris in England and produced the Arts and Crafts movement, quickly embraced in America by Elbert Hubbard who started the Roycroft colony in Aurora, N.Y., by the Stickley family and by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Thus it appears that for most of America’s existence we have mooched our styles from abroad. Then at last came the great American contribution to American furniture. In the latter part of the 19th century we started to reproduce our own borrowed history and in the process accidentally produced the one true American style – Colonial Revival. ?

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com.

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or info@furnituredetective.com.


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This American 20th century rocker uses elements of several styles from previous centuries. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

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