Architecture and Furniture


When I’m at an antique store looking for a certain piece of furniture to add to my collection, I often think about the house this or that piece may have been originally designed for. This is especially true of furniture made before 1845

Today we think of architecture and interior design as separate. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries there was a unified system of design based on classical architecture. The classical system was all-inclusive. It included writing, poetry, music, art and science. This system had grown out of the rebirth of European culture during  the Renaissance. We still use the classical system every time we write a letter because it opens with a beginning, then a middle, and an ending. This is a basic form of classicalism. Every schoolchild is taught this when learning how to write a report.

In the preface to Thomas Chippendale’s, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, (1754), he states that to excel in cabinetmaking one must understand the five orders of architecture and perspective drawing “since they are the soul and basis of his art.” For years, I pondered this first paragraph in his design book. I understood perspective, but what was hidden in the orders?

One day, Richard Frazier, a friend who is a riflemaker at Colonial Williamsburg, gave me a small treatise on the design of flintlock rifles. It talked about classical proportions in the layout of rifles. A light bulb went on in my head. The five orders of architecture– Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite- are laid out proportionally to themselves. My next clue was a short article about the five orders having been used in furniture, and how they could be superimposed to create the design of chairs, tables, or chests. With proportional dividers ( a cabinetmaker’s tool) in hand, I started going over the designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. The bases, columns, and capitals were there jumping off the pages.

I found another part of the puzzle after attending a lecture on classical architecture. The speaker talked about 18th century architects of this period and their design books. The principle source for English architects of this period was Andrea Palladio’s, The Four Books Of Architecture (1570). It was first translated into English in 1738. Inigo Jones, Christopher Wern, Batty Langley,  James Gibbs, and William Pain were just a few of the architects to be influenced by the work of Palladio. In each of these men’s books, the first thing they presented was the five orders. In Batty Langley’s The Builder’s Jewel (1746), he shows how to proportion a room with its base molding, chair rail, and cornice in the different orders. Mantels and overmantels for the fire place were designed by this method. The windows and doors of a house could be in one of the orders. Not only did the exterior of a house use the orders, but also the interior rooms and the furnishings. This created a unified design in which a sense of harmony was found. Palladio had even gone so far as to assign harmonic values to rooms in houses. Remember, music is proportional as well.

For many years we referred to the different styles of furniture according to either the reign of a monarch (Queen Anne ) or by that of a designer (Chippendale ). Today, it is more common to define these styles by their artistic elements. William and Mary, also Queen Anne are in the Middle Baroque period. Georgian is  Late Baroque period. Chippendale is in the Rococo. Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Adam and Hope belong to the Neoclassical period.

The Baroque ( 1660-1750 ) was typified by use of the cyma curve ( S- shaped curve ), the broken pediment over doors, mantles, and highboy bonnets, use of negative space in chair backs, and the cabriole leg. The Rococo style(1750 -1760) , imported form France, made use of the C and S scroll,  asymmetrical use of ornamentation, and shells and C- scroll ornaments with a rough or rocky appearing edge. The Neoclassical ( 1760 – 1845 ) used of rectilinear and geometric forms, ovals, and a feeling of lightness and delicacy. The Neoclassical style was based on Greek architecture, as the Baroque and Rococo styles are based on Roman architecture.

Much of the architecture and furniture found in Tennessee is of the Middle and Late Neoclassical periods (1800 – 1845 ). Grecian style is everywhere: churches, banks, houses, and public buildings. Our state Capitol was designed by William Strickland in 1845 and based on Greek architecture. It was much admired through the country at the time of its completion.

“American Empire” is a misnomer. Empire style refers only to French design during the reign of Napoleon. In England, it is called Regency, and here it is referred to as Federal. American furniture from 1820 – 1845 was referred to at the time as being in the “Modern Grecian Style.” The term “Empire” style in America came about during our centennial and sadly, has stuck.

The next time you are in a antique shop looking at some early furniture try to imagine the style of the house the piece might have been made for. A few museum houses do still have their original furnishings, and you can view them the way they were meant to be seen.

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