Can’t tell your Chippendale from your Hepplewhite? Then it is time to explore the subtle tell-tale differences in the major English furniture styles. Born in the 17th and 18th centuries, traditional English furniture design has remained popular in today’s traditional home décor. But the English design genre can actually be broken down into seven distinct styles. So before you go mixing cabriole legs with marquetry, let’s take a minute to set the record straight.
The Adam Brothers, who were Scottish brothers born in the 1720’s and 30’s, were actually architects by trade. While John and James remained in the background, designing furniture, their brother Robert went on to study classical design in Rome. He returned to England and eventually established a furniture manufacturing facility for the family business. Because of his time spent studying classical design in Italy, his architecture and furniture took on a distinct Roman Greco flavor and became one of the footholds of the classical revival period in England. The signature marks of Adam brothers’ furniture are its delicate scale and elaborate detail. The upholstery colors were especially trend-setting in dull blue, pale yellow-green, lavender and light gray.
Chippendale is another famous name in traditional English furniture. Born in 1718, Thomas Chippendale was one of the more hands-on furniture designers and actually made quite a few of his own pieces by hand. The Chippendale style is known for its large scale and is considered more masculine than curvy Queen Anne pieces – Hepplewhite and Sheraton seem lighter-scaled in comparison to Chippendale. His chair backs were open and show Gothic influences in their designs.
The Georgian era of design was named after England’s King George. Influenced by the classical styles of Greece and Rome, Georgian style is heavy in proportion and detail.
The Hepplewhite style is named after George Hepplewhite, a furniture maker by trade but there are no pieces known to exist by either Hepplewhite or his business. Nonetheless, Hepplewhite created a distinctive style with his characteristic shield back chair. The shape is still seen in modern furniture design.
The Queen Anne style is named for England’s monarch who reigned from 1702-1714. While she did not design the furniture for which she is a namesake, she did influence its style. The furniture style features curvy lines and Oriental influence. It is best known for its cabriole leg, which has distinct generous curves that often end in a ball or claw foot. One of the big three English furniture designers, Thomas Sheraton created a more delicately scaled style that featured Neoclassical elements and motifs.
The last major period of English influence in furniture design was the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 until the Queen’s death in 1901. Victorian furniture is characterized by the decorative excess of the era, incorporating nostalgic elements of Gothic, Renaissance, Moorish and Oriental designs.
All of these designers and periods influenced the English furniture design that we now lump together as “traditional” furniture design. But now you know that there are subtle, and not-so-subtle differences between them. And that your mother’s Duncan Phyfe table is not the only example of traditional English furniture.