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Thomas Chippendale (1705 - 1779)

Thomas Chippendale was the first of a famous group of English cabinet makers who worked in the second half of the eighteenth century, a time which is called the Golden Age of Furniture Making. He designed, made, and carved furniture, often adapting foreign designs with skill. He was fearless in attempting to make other ideas fit the life of his time. He used the French Rococo style of Louis XV for most of his work, but his Chinese and Gothic designs were also included in his book, "The Gentlemen's and Cabinet-Maker's Director," published in 1754. His designs were copied by other cabinet makers. He is notable for the encouragement that he gave his clients to have their own opinions and to avoid aping the royalty. He helped to develop a period of individual taste through his willingness to work in a variety of styles.

Although Chippendale's contemporaries worked in the new style, the Neo-Classic, he preferred to work mostly in the Baroque and Rococo styles of the preceding periods. In point of time he belongs in the Neo-Classic period, but his furniture belongs with the Baroque and Rococo movements. Chippendale was born in Yorkshire probably about 1705. He opened a cabinet-making shop in London about 1750. He was a good salesman as well as a craftsman, serving both tea and gossip to his prospective customers in his display rooms in St. Martin's Lane.

Chippendale preferred mahogany to other woods. With it he was able to make his furniture strong even though light; and, most important of all, it was excellent material to carve.

There were three typical Chippendale chairs. The most-used type resembled the Queen Anne but had the following differences. The shoulders were square, and the top of the back formed a graceful bow shape. The splat was pierced in ribbon and scroll shapes and always reached to the seat. The cabriole front legs were carved with scrolls and the acanthus; ball and claw feet were usual. His ladder-back chairs, which had four or five pierced and curved slats, straight legs, stretchers, and a saddle seat, were his best ones. He made chairs and other furniture in the Chinese manner. These were light and rectangular, and decorated with open fretwork and lattice ornament. Some of them were good and some were poor. Nearly all his pseudo-Gothic pieces were poor.

Chippendale used upholstering very little except for the seats of his chairs. He generally used the lighter-weight upholstery materials, among them silk, damask, and brocade, but he sometimes used red leather and horsehair.

Chippendale originated a cumulative dining table in four parts, two ends and two center pieces, that could be adjusted to fit various needs. He made tilt-top card tables, pedestal pie-crust tea tables, small tables with fretwork galleries around them, and many other whimsical small affairs. His secretary bookcases were among his finest productions, as their charm depended upon fine proportion and beautiful finish rather than on ornament. His bombe serpentine-shaped commodes and desks were modeled after the French, but had distinct Chippendale characteristics. Interesting accessories came from his shops. His Chinese mirrors were fine in workmanship, as were also little pieces of tripod furniture such as pole screens and table stands.

Opinions vary greatly as to the art quality of Chippendale furniture. Much of it is rather ugly, although some pieces are excellent in design and technique. The typical chair with the cabriole legs is not a good unit of design. Some highboys also are not good in design as the upper part appears too heavy for the curved legs, and the broken pediment top is just a useless form put on for adornment.

Modern Use of the Chippendale Style. The beauty of Chippendale furniture is largely due to its fine carving. Accordingly it is essentially a handmade product that can not be properly reproduced by machinery. Handmade reproductions are procurable, but very expensive. Therefore, it is not advisable for a person of moderate means to consider using Chippendale furniture, although there are many reproductions on the market. In fine homes this style is suitable, but it is very often wrongly used, as it should not be combined with slender, precise, straightlegged Sheraton, or any other Neo-Classic furniture. In spite of famous examples such as Mount Vernon, and in spite of the advice of salesmen, this furniture should generally be used only with other Baroque furniture. It is entirely different in spirit and form from the Neo-Classic.

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