Chairs and tables – most everyone has them, but we seldom consider them so long as they satisfy our needs and provide comfort.
There have been various styles in furniture and decoration, each style known by some special name, i.e., Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Duncan Phyfe. The name can come from the ruler, the times, or be that of the furniture maker.
Still, furniture is first of all intended for use and convenience in our daily use, and it should always be serviceable for its purpose, and should be convenient, depending on how we perceive its purpose.
More than 200 years ago, English furniture had already passed through many changes in style and purpose.
Saxons had used primitive appearing and roughly constructed furnishings. Norman furniture was slightly different, but still heavy and elaborately carved.
In Europe styles were changing readily. The Italian Renaissance introduced a kind of attractive and still practical furniture. The style spread slowly across Europe, through France, into Spain, and across the channel to England, a perfect example of how supply always follows demand, and demand often dominates an industry, then and now.
Up to the mid-16th century furniture was rarely constructed of any wood but oak – a wood that is sturdy, serviceable, substantial, and can endure rough use for decades.
But oak is not easily carved, and was not the most receptive for detail.
Walnut, undoubtedly, was the first species of wood used for excellent carving properties, and this wood remained premier until the first quarter of the 18th century.
Mahogany was the favorite wood for a century after that, with other woods – satinwood, pear, tulipwood, ebony, other native and exotic woods – employed mostly for inlay. Satinwood was sometimes used for the whole frame.
Later painted, lacquered and japanned finishes appeared.
Styles in England followed one after another, often clashing or being mixed together until the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), when a more native English mode began to appear amid the mixed lot of foreign styles and designs.
A chair very much in vogue during Queen Anne’s reign had a plain but still shaped carved splat in the middle of the back, a style some call a “fiddle-back” chair.
By the end of the Queen Anne period, Thomas Chippendale had been born in England.
In 1727 young Chippendale and his father had set up business in London. His designs were so successful that “Chippendale” furniture has been copied ever since. In the 18th century, whether the furniture was made by Thomas or by someone else, the designs characterized by flowing lines and often rococo ornamentation were called “Chippendale.”
Thomas Chippendale thought all pieces of furniture must be built for strength and service, and his aim was to combine those desired qualities with grace and still keep the furniture as light as possible. The resulting articles not only were light but sturdy.
Some of his pieces had features from Gothic, French, Dutch and occasionally a bit of the Orient, an inspiration that has been difficult to duplicate with the same style.
By the 18th century, some of the best examples of English furniture were being imported to the colonies by the ranking British officials and well-to-do merchants.
Colonial cabinetmakers and carpenters copied the furniture designs, and employing wood native to America proceeded to the best of their abilities, but without the same tools employed by European cabinetmakers, to copy the designs.
Their furniture did not have the same fine finish, but soon became all-American in character. The tables and chairs were a bit heavier, more coarsely executed than the articles they attempted to copy. But highboys used for clothing storage were original and unique to the Americans.
A visit to the Salem Library will provide a glimpse of this “new” Windsor style furniture. It is simple, altered somewhat from English originals, and came to be distinctively American.
The chairs are made with slender spindles in the back, rounded in a comfortable curve. The seat curves, with shape and legs angling slightly slanted outward, but secured firmly with three underbraces connecting them.
All pieces of Windsor furniture appear rather light, and they are, but they are also strong. Windsor chairs were reportedly used by the Declaration of Independence signers.
Handmade furniture, like most other products, succumbed to mass production of the industrial revolution.
In factories where machines do the work, it was and is impossible to retain the perfection of hand work and its artistic qualities.