By Karen Parr-Moody
Chippendale furniture originated in 1700s England, and originals from the Chippendale workshop are not only nearly impossible to find, they bear astronomical price tags. However, “Chippendale style” furniture – which includes reproductions produced during the Victorian period – is a genre of antiques in its own right, and is easily found at GasLamp.
Chippendale furniture originated from Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), a master English cabinetmaker and interior designer who was the most distinguished furniture designer of his day. So popular was Chippendale that his furniture was the first to be called by his surname, rather than taking on the name of a king or queen, which had been the traditional nomenclature.
Part of Chippendale’s popularity was due to his knack for self-promotion. Not only was he the first cabinetmaker to publish a book, “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director,” which appeared in 1754, this book was also the first comprehensive design book for furniture. It went on to have three editions, and influenced furniture makers in its native England, in addition to the emerging United States of America.
The original Chippendale furniture was generally made of mahogany, and in solid wood that accommodated its elaborate carvings. Note in the photo of the settee, upper right, that the Chinese-influenced design of this Chippendale style piece has elaborate carving, fret work and latticework ($650; Booth B-101). The original Chippendale furniture would have been even more elaborate, and done by hand, but the idea is still the same.
Thomas Chippendale’s furniture reflected popular English trends in the decorative arts of his era, particularly a taste for the lively Rococo style that was fashionable in the mid-18th century. Aspects of this style were influenced by French, Gothic, and Chinese design.
Chippendale was known to employ the Queen Anne-style cabriole leg extensively, and did so in three of his leg styles. These were the lion’s paw, which ends with a paw-shaped foot, along with the club, which is a simple round foot. Then there is the “ball and claw” style leg, seen on the chair in the photo at left; it looks like a bird’s talon holding a ball (chair with black leather seat, $150; Booth B-125). This style was derived from the Chinese dragon's claw holding a crystal ball or jewel; in America, Chippendale-inspired furniture usually depicted an eagle’s talon.
The other three Chippendale style legs are straight. They include the Marlborough, which is a plain square leg ending in a block, the Spade, which is a tapered round leg with a square or trapezoid foot, and then, finally, the late Chippendale, which has a square leg and foot.
The influence of China on the Western Decorative Arts peaked in the middle 18th century. The resulting work is more a Western reflection of an imaginary China, and this fanciful interpretation runs wild with a niche of Chippendale called “Chinese Chippendale.” Such designs employ many Chinese motifs, including whimsical figures, dragons, pagodas, temples, and palaces, not to mention bamboo and bells.
Chinese Chippendale furniture remains popular to this day in a pared down version adored by decorators. Seen in the photo, right, these chairs typically feature irregular latticework and are often made to mimic bamboo.
Since much of the original Thomas Chippendale furniture is confined to museums or grand estates of Great Britain, Chippendale style furniture is an affordable way to incorporate 18th-century style into one’s home. Many modern decorators strip the chairs’ original paint off, and then repaint them in fun colors for a fresh, new look. Any way you look at it, because Chippendale style is a blend of styles itself, it is versatile, lending itself to many forms of décor.