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The History Of Antique Furniture

by Polly Madris

The design and style of nineteenth century furniture were influenced by three dominant factors. The first of these was historical revivalism of a style which had been popular in the past. At times the overall effect of a piece of revival furniture was that of a reproduction of a model from the past; at other times antique elements were applied to a form of a completely different style. Historical revivalism survived in one manner or another throughout the entire century.

Around the middle of the century, and continuing until its end, there were certain designers and tastemakers who advocated a break with revivalism. These men were responsible for the second factor of progressive tendencies in furniture design. The furniture produced under this influence was sometimes free from revival decoration, and in other instances it had some mechanical or technical innovation incorporated into it. The third influence on nineteenth century furniture was the utilization of new materials in design and construction. Although earlier furniture makers had occasionally used materials other than wood, the nineteenth century saw an increase in the use of such materials as iron, wire, tubular metal, and different organic substances such as cane, rattan, animal horn, etc. However, historical revivalism, in its various aspects, was the predominant influence during the century.

The first revival style which became important at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the Classical. This was a style based on decorative motifs and actual furniture forms of ancient Greece and Rome. Since the furniture of nineteenth century America was still greatly influenced by taste in England and Prance, it might be well to summarize movements in these countries which were important in developing the Classical style.

As far back as 1730 the English architect William Kent had started to utilize such Classical techniques as Greek keys and egg-and-dart moldings to Baroque furniture. The furniture style was not greatly affected in any way, because the methods were merely applications of alien devices to the surface of the piece. This step, which was the first in the creation of the Classical style, was copied by other designers in both England and France until around 1760. The second step was the development of a straight leg which was carved or turned, in contrast to the curvilinear lines of the popular Rococo style.

One other English architect, Robert Adam, has often been considered to be the one who created this innovation around 1765. But there is some other accounts that the straight leg was utilized in France as well at around the same time. The creations of Adam were interpreted into furniture styles by George Hepplewhite in his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer Guide in 1788 and Thomas Sheraton in his The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer Drawing-Book around 1791. These books were a dominant influence in disseminating this phase of the Classical style. The third development in the creation of the Classical style was the copying of actual Greco-Roman furniture forms. The two forms most often copied were a chair form called klismos and a bench and chair form called curule. The klismos form is composed of a horizontal solid cresting piece that supports the back with the front and rear legs, flaring outward in a saber line. The curule is the familiar X-shaped support that meets with the top of the bench and supports it on the floor.

There were two French designers, Charles Percier and Pierre P. L. Fontaine, who used these archaeological forms. In 1801, they published a collection of plates which used this style that they called Recueil de Decorations Interieures. These two men were accredited with for creating what is known as the Empire Style. This name was the result of when Napoleon Bonaparte established his Empire in 1804 and he made Percier and Fontaine his official court decorators. Some of the Greco-Roman motifs that appeared in their work were acanthus leaves, cornucopias, swans, eagles, dolphins, and monopodia which is a combination of animal head and leg into a single element.

The furniture and rooms shown in the Recueil were intended only for the wealthiest patrons. The furniture was made of mahogany and rosewood and elaborately decorated with ormolu mounts; it was massive and cubical in character. The Napoleon campaign in Egypt made popular another set of ancient decorative motifs that were incorporated into the Empire style. The massive solidity of Egyptian design was reflected in many furniture forms, and such motifs as the lotus, sphinx, hawk, and hieroglyphics were used as decorative detail.

After the Bourbon Restoration was complete in 1830, the spirit of the Empire was still kept alive in cabinetmaking. The heaviness continued, although some of the Restoration and Charles X furniture was stripped of much of its ormolu detail. Mahogany was less much less as fruitwoods became a favorite. The gondola chair, which was an alteration of the klismos style where the back was enclosed, was very fashionable in the Restoration and Louis Philippe era.

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