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Art Noveau (1890-1910)

Today we’ll take a look at another piece of design history as it pertains to furniture that was around during the same era as the Arts and Crafts movement which we discussed in our last blog.  This movement was called Art Noveau and was a naturalistic style characterized by intricately detailed patterns and curving lines.  While it did find its way to the States (where it was also referred to as “Tiffany style” due to its association with Louis Comfort Tiffany), this movement is most often associated with France where the period truly began in 1890 and is seen as the first truly original design style to come along in almost a century.  Art Noveau is also considered a “total” style, embracing architecture, graphic design, interior design and the majority of the decorative arts, including furniture.  According to the philosophy of the style, art should be a way of life.

Although Art Nouveau acquired distinctly localized tendencies as its geographic spread increased, some general characteristics are indicative of the form.  One description described it as “sudden violent curves generated by the crack of a whip”, which became well known during the early spread of Art Nouveau.  Subsequently, not only did the work itself become better known as The Whiplash but the term “whiplash” is frequently applied to the characteristic curves employed by Art Nouveau artists.  Nature was advocated as a source of inspiration for artists looking to break away from styles of the past.  The unfolding of Art Nouveau’s flowing line may be understood as a metaphor for the freedom and release sought by its practitioners and admirers from the weight of artistic tradition and critical expectations.

Art Nouveau was a concerted attempt to create an international style based on decoration. It was developed by a brilliant and energetic generation of artists and designers, who sought to fashion an art form appropriate to the modern age. During this extraordinary time, urban life as we now understand it was established. Old customs, habits, and artistic styles sat alongside new, combining a wide range of contradictory images and ideas. Many artists, designers, and architects were excited by new technologies and lifestyles, while others retreated into the past, embracing the spirit world, fantasy, and myth.

Although international in scope, Art Nouveau was a short-lived movement that was a precursor of modernism, which emphasized function over form and the elimination of superfluous ornament. Although a reaction to historic revivalism, it brought Victorian excesses to a dramatic finale. Its influence has been far reaching and is evident in Art Deco furniture designs, whose sleek surfaces are enriched by exotic wood veneers and ornamental inlays. Dramatic Art Nouveau—inspired graphics became popular in the turbulent social and political milieu of the 1960s, among a new generation challenging conventional taste and ideas.

To learn more about the exact styles incorporated into Art Noveau furniture, visit this handy guide here. And be sure to stop by our showroom today so we can help you find your personal furniture style!

The Continuation of the History of American Furniture

In our last blog we discussed the Queen Anne and Chippendale styles that were popular in America during the 1700s.  Now we’re onto the next phase of American furniture history, the Neoclassical or Federal Era.  The three decades that followed the formation of the United States are referred to as the Federal era in recognition of the early development of the national government. The style of houses and furnishings created during this period was heavily influenced by the Neoclassical designs favored in Great Britain since the 1760s, which stemmed from a renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome.

The Neoclassical style varied from region to region but drew from common sources such as architectural designs introduced abroad then disseminated in America through various publications.  The clean lines, delicate forms, geometric shapes, contrasting veneers, and decorative inlays of Federal-period furniture represent a dramatic shift away from the sinuous Rococo carving that had typified American decorative arts for the previous thirty years and found in period rooms from the second half of the eighteenth century.  The best way to get an accurate representation of what this era held is to look at three famous rooms.

The Haverhill Room

Haverhill Room

The Haverhill Room is from a house built for James Duncan Jr. in 1805 in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  Financial success allowed Duncan to build an elegant house representative of the variant of Neoclassical style that prevailed in eastern Massachusetts. The delicate composition ornament and mahogany pilasters on the mantel are important signifiers of this architectural mode. There are also echoes of ancient Greece and Rome in such decorative motifs as urns draped with fabric, festoons of flowers, and Etruscan scrolls.

 The Baltimore Room

Baltimore Room

This room comes from a townhouse built between 1810 and 1811 in Baltimore, Maryland for merchant and shipowner, Henry Craig. The geometric shapes found in the interior woodwork are excellent examples of the adoption and adaptation of the English Neoclassical style in the Federal period. Unlike the elaborate, fully paneled fireplace walls of eighteenth-century homes, decorative woodwork in the Baltimore Room is limited to the mantel, the door and window surrounds, and the dado in the recessed alcoves. All of the elements were crafted entirely from pine.  Large two- or three-piece dining tables came into vogue in the United States toward the close of the eighteenth century. Unlike a bulky sideboard that tended to remain in one location, a dining table with drop leaves could be conveniently stored against the wall when not in use. The inlaid eagle in an oval reserve seen at the top of each table leg is a motif common to Baltimore furniture in the Neoclassical style.

 The Richmond Room

Richmond Room

From a house built between 1810 and 1811 for the Richmond lawyer William Clayton Williams, the Richmond room’s most notable features are its rich mahogany woodwork and blue-and-gray King of Prussia marble baseboards.  Most of the furnishings in the Richmond Room were made in New York City. The tables and seating furniture on view follow patterns in an archaeologically correct antique taste that superseded the Neoclassical style and was strongly influenced by French design. Furnishings continued to feature motifs from ancient Greece and Rome, but they were incorporated as three-dimensional elements such as carved wood figures or applied brass ornament rather than the two-dimensional inlay that typified the Federal style.

The curule shape of the legs of the sofa and chairs—also called a “Grecian cross” frame—found in the Richmond Room is based on an ancient Roman magistrate’s folding chair. Formed by two intersecting S-curves, the curule appeared in many early nineteenth-century design sources and price books, which were the guides published to establish how much a journeyman cabinetmaker was paid to produce a particular piece of furniture.

This room has been described as “a revelation to the creative taste and genius of the craftsmen of the Federal Period in America”.

Stay tuned next week for more interesting furniture facts you might not yet know!  And remember to stop by our showroom or website to see what’s happening in the latest American styles!

American Made Furniture from the 1700s-1800s

In our last blog post, we took a look into the history of American made furniture starting with the 1600s and going till the 1700s.  The predominant styles then were the Seventeenth Century style and the William and Mary style.  So what were the main styles from the 1700s to the 1800s?  Queen Anne and Chippendale were the two big styles in this era.

During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the bold turnings, attenuated proportions, and dynamic surfaces of the Early Baroque, or William and Mary, style were subdued in favor of gracefully curved outlines, classical proportions, and restrained surface ornamentation.   This style came to be known as Queen Anne.  In the early 18th century, Boston was the reigning colonial city and the first to start using the Queen Anne style by making chairs with a “crooked” or S-curved back that conformed to the shape of the sitter’s spine.  The S-curve was borrowed from Asian designs and reflected a trend towards comfort in furniture, a far departure from the stiff, straight chair backs of the era before.

Thousands of these chairs were made and then exported to the other colonies.  In Philadelphia, craftsmen took the design a step further by developing distinctive seating forms with more elaborately curved lines.  Revealing the Late Baroque emphasis on negative space, the solid splat and the flanking stiles were carefully designed so as to produce a gracefully curved void between them.

Case furniture such as dressers, chests and dressing tables became more architectural as time went on with proportions and ornamental designs being derived from their Renaissance forerunners.  Boston furniture makers were incorporating cabriole legs and broken-scroll pediments into high chests of drawers by 1730 while in Rhode Island cabinetmakers integrated distinctive scrolls and scalloped shells into the skirts of high chests and dressing tables.  One exception to this ornamentation was “japanning”, a technique developed to imitate Asian lacquer work.  Also used was “chinoiserie”, which was the painting of fantastical scenes on furniture.

By now colonies were trading amongst themselves, enabling the spread of different styles and materials.  The most popular wood used during the Queen Anne period was black walnut while the most used wood during the Chippendale period was walnut stained to resemble Caribbean mahogany.  The Chippendale period was also known as the Rococo period due to the publication of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, a book that reflected the growing influence of the French Rococo style, which found expression in America in overlays of playful, naturalistic carving.

Chairs in the Chippendale style became more rectilinear, with square seat frames, straight stiles, and outward-flaring “ears” at the top corners. Claw-and-ball feet with sharply articulated talons replaced the smooth contours of pad and slipper feet. Back splats, formerly solid and unornamented, came to be pierced and intricately carved with foliage and interlaced patterns.  In case furniture, the Chippendale style was just an extension of the Queen Anne style such as a high chest of drawers being updated with carved Rococo ornamentation.

Now was also the time when leisure activities were finally a part of life.  The result was cabinetmakers produced specialized furniture forms such as tables for playing cards and taking tea. These pieces increasingly took on bold three-dimensional shapes and often rested on leaf-carved cabriole legs ending in claw feet.

The transition from Queen Anne to Chippendale in the colonies wasn’t fast or universal.  Outside any major cities, any changes were small and at times hardly noticeable.  By the 1780s however, a new style was starting to emerge and that’s what we’ll visit in our next blog.  So stay tuned to learn more about the history of American made furniture!

By the way, although most manufacturing of wood furniture has gone overseas, Suburban Furniture displays and stocks many sets from 100% American made Vaughan Bassett Furniture.  Click here to learn more about this almost 100 year old company.  Most of Suburban Furniture’s upholstery is assembled here in US factories.



Queen Anne Chair

Queen Anne Chair