Chairs were latecomers in European furniture-making, where people typically sat on stools. Handcarved seating with backs entered society as a status symbol. When armchairs were finally introduced in the late sixteenth century, they were reserved for the king and noblemen of the court, as ladies' wide skirts made armchairs impractical for them. European chair designs quickly caught on in the colonies in the eighteenth century. Finely wrought handmade wood armchairs were prized in well-to-do homes, and furnished the chambers used by the Founding Fathers.
Windsor chairs were first designed to be used outdoors—their open backs allowed the breeze to blow through them and their rounded tops were convenient for slipping a grain sack over to block a chilly wind. They came from a town named Windsor, in the 1600s. By the mid-1700s, Windsor chairs had migrated to the colonies, where they can be seen in paintings of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They are graceful chairs with curved wooden backs, spindle-turned back slats, shaped seats, flat curved arms often ending in curved knuckles, and spindle or dowel legs and stressors. The original chairs and the best reproductions are constructed with no nails or screws. Pieces are hammered into grooves and sealed with glue.
George Hepplewhite, a London cabinetmaker who lived from 1727 to 1786, is most famous for the shield back he introduced in his chairs. His designs were simple for the time. It is said he may have been influenced by the shapes of furniture discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, which was unveiled during his lifetime. Another Hepplewhite characteristic is feathering, a design element allegedly inspired by the feathered hats of his friend, the Prince of Wales. Whether a true story or apocryphal, Hepplewhite pieces are indeed slender, straight-legged, with short curved arms and designs layered-in with wood veneer or painted but not carved. There is as yet no clear provenance to guarantee that a chair was made in the Hepplewhite workshop and not a contemporary copy of his designs.
Queen Anne Chairs
Queen Anne reigned from 1702 until 1714 but the real period of popularity for the Queen Anne style was from 1720 to about 1750. The chairs are simple and graceful with curved lines, vase-shaped backs, cabriole legs, horseshoe-shaped seats, and shell and fan carvings. The feet end in simple pads or a drake shape with carved toes. The arms might be plain wood or have built-in upholstery—a variation of the Queen Anne, the wingback chair, was fully upholstered with wooden legs. The wingback was designed to hold in the warmth of the hearth and protect the sitter from chill drafts. Queen Anne wingbacks have sides that fold in and shoulders that slant downward in a more feminine line than square-top wingback chairs.
The heyday of Chippendale style lasted from 1750 through the 1830s. Thomas Chippendale, who lived from 1718 to 1789, was an extraordinary English furniture-maker heavily influenced by the French Rococo. He absorbed international style, made it his own and used it in a design that became a signature. Chippendale armchairs had upholstered backs and partly upholstered and fauteuil arms (gilded) with elaborate carving, and cabriole legs with claw and ball feet. He used mainly mahogany because there was a shortage of walnut wood in England. The crest rail or the back top edge of the chair was often a carved cupid’s bow shape, sometimes extending past the chair on either side and ending in twisted whorls of wood. Chippendale was so widely copied that excellent examples of contemporary Chippendale-style chairs are themselves valuable collectors’ pieces.
- Photo Credit traditional style accent chair image by James Phelps from Fotolia.com