Design and construction

The eighteenth century has been divided into a variety of eras for different purposes. The most suitable for furniture studies is either the stylistic distinction between Baroque, Rococo and the Neo-Classic, or the dynastic division between early Georgian, mid-Georgian and late Georgian or Regency. Throughout these divisions other stylistic influences occur either disparately or in conjunction. The Chinese taste from the middle of the century to the end is evidence of an Oriental passion; a Gothic mode was popular from the middle of the century onwards and both the Classical revival (under the influence of Adam), and the Greek revival, in the last decade of the century were part of the Neo-Classical revival (Figure 1.15). The period was also important for the influence of particular cabinetmakers and their publications which have also been used as period names.

The conjunction between material and method is best seen in the Rococo designs that were suited to mahogany. Due to this material's strength, ribbon back chairs, cabriole legs, Chinese style frets and lattice-pierced galleries

Figure 1.15 Neo-Classical commode, 1773, designed by Robert Adam, from the Drawing Room, Osterley Park House. The commode is veneered with satinwood, harewood, rosewood and other woods, some stained green, and has ormolu mounts could be made in profusion. The Rococo style was promoted by the Saint Martin's Lane Academy, set up by William Hogarth. The close geographical connection with furniture-makers ensured a speedy application of the style in furniture designs.

Around 1700 Daniel Marot introduced a style of chair with a narrow back which enclosed a vertical solid vase or splat. Cabriole legs changed chair construction by doing away with the stretcher bars, which resulted in a wider knee. Shoe-pieces for backs were now pinned and glued to back rails, and seat rails were rebated to accept drop-in seats. Chair seats were now broader. Legs were decorated with carved acanthus foliage on knees, and were finished in a ball and claw foot. Upholstered backs became common. During George II's reign, legs became even more elaborate, with high relief carving and decorated seat rails, with solid splats replacing pierced ones. These features remained essentially the ingredients of armchairs through the mid-century. There were, though, innovations, changes of scale and detail, for example: the introduction of the square section leg with stretcher bars; the ladder-back dining chair; fretted and latticed work in the Chinese style, and various Gothic motifs. Adam's French influence is apparent in his chair designs based on the oval back and taper-turned leg, whereas the neo-classical influence was found in the round, or rectilinear style of backs. Hepplewhite introduced the shield-back, oval and heart shapes for chair backs. It is noticeable that most of his chair backs are supported by the upward elongation of the back legs. Sheraton's chairs were generally designed with square backs and frequently had square section legs which were slightly tapered. For economy they were often made from beech and finished with paint.

In America regional preferences were manifested in the design and construction of chairs. For example, New England side chairs were tall and had legs formed by turned and joined stretchers. New York side chairs were broader and lower than the New England ones. Whilst in Philadelphia the chairs were larger in proportion, did not usually have stretchers and were sculptural in form. The importance of Windsor chairs should also be stressed. Probably first developed for outdoor use, painted green, they soon became an important furnishing item and were made in a wide range of shapes and styles that reflected local taste and craft. A particular Windsor form with a writing arm was developed in America.

Early Georgian cabinets were relatively plain if made from solid wood. This return to plain, solid wood, as opposed to the veneering practices of the previous period, encouraged architectural detail to be applied, to relieve the surface. Heavy cornices or broken pediments, fluted pilasters and mouldings were added as decoration, and some cabinets were supported on cabriole legs. The heavier chest bases used the angle-bracket foot for supporting carcases on the floor. Cabinets with serpentine fronts and convex sides and front were popular in Europe and sometimes received interest in England. Details include the use of bail or loop handles and astragal mouldings on glazed bookcase doors.

From 1750 onwards the influence of France is seen in the Rococo mounts used. Sometimes they were supplied by the French or they were indifferently copied and chased by English workmen. In 1762, Boulton's factory in Birmingham began to make high quality mounts, which were sometimes gilded by the mercury process - the result being known as ormolu. From the 1750s solid back-plates on handles were replaced by two roses, one at each end. By 1800, ball or loop handles were replaced by brass knobs or lion masks, holding rings.

In American cabinet work the flat topped high boy was a particular development and so was the use of a decoration called blocking, which refers to the concave and convex profiles of panels on the fronts of cabinets or chests. This was almost exclusively used in New England. Much other American cabinet work relied on English models.

Mahogany flap dining tables often had four or six legs with oval or circular tops and used the gate-leg principle to support the flaps. By the mid-century it was common to extend a dining table by adding two semicircular pier tables at each end of the gate-leg table. From 1715 folding-hinged frames were introduced on card tables, in contrast to the swing-legs used previously. By 1710 kneehole writing tables had been introduced as one example of a number of special-use objects. Around 1730 card tables with square corners were introduced. By 1750 the tea table or tripod table

was used and it soon developed a tilting mechanism by being hinged to a small cage. From 1770 the 'Carlton House' style table was introduced (Figure 1.16).

The early part of the eighteenth century is marked by the use of needlework for upholstery, and the rise of the wing chair, which remained popular throughout the century (Figure 1.17). From around 1725, bergère chairs, characterized by a long seat and a raked back, were introduced from France. By the middle of the century, upholstery had become less visually important, but was used in conjunction with carved wooden frames for chairs and a wide variety of special types of seating furniture and hangings.

Beds remained important pieces of furniture, but gradually became lighter in construction with draperies reduced to a minimum and the woodwork again becoming important, the posts being reeded and slender and the canopy often pierced and carved. The so-called Angel bed, which had its tester hung from the ceiling, was introduced. Other new bed designs included the French 'Lit à la Polonaise' and the 'Lit à la Turque'. Field and tent beds also became popular towards the end of the century. When draperies were used they often included crewel work or other embroidery.

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