NEW YORK, NY -- What has always intrigued me about American furniture are the unique ways that cabinetmakers combined regional and foreign techniques and tastes to forge a distinctly American style. We can examine two chairs in the October 4, 2017 auction that exhibit vastly different influences and design aesthetics, yet were made during a short seventy year span.
In early American furniture, different regions can be distinguished by specific construction and design details. The October 4 sale offers a great example of a chair from the Chapin School in Connecticut Valley (Lot 159) that also has a fun backstory. Eliphalet Chapin (1741-1807) worked as a cabinetmaker in East Windsor, Connecticut. After an “ill-fated association with a local woman who bore his child in March 1767,” Chapin moved to Philadelphia and remained there for several years. Returning to East Windsor by 1769, he spent the rest of his career in Connecticut. However, those few years in Philadelphia proved to be hugely influential in Chapin’s furniture design and construction. Chapin’s cousin, Aaron Chapin, also came to work with him in East Windsor from 1774-1783. Both men, and possibly additional family members and local cabinetmakers, worked in this blended style, now known as the Chapin School.
Philadelphia was the epicenter for high style American furniture in the 18th century, with renowned craftsmen contributing to its distinct Chippendale style, a style that gained traction in America through European design sources and cabinetmakers from abroad. Philadelphia style characteristics, such as squared claws and triangular talons on the ball and claw feet, are found in Chapin School chairs. The construction details include through tenons on seat rails and rounded corner blocks.
Today, Chippendale furniture can be seen as traditional, conservative, and only appropriate for interiors that focus on early American style. However, now knowing the scandal that caused a unique merging of regional techniques, wouldn’t it be a fun conversation piece to have in one’s home?
By the mid-19th century, the country was booming and had transformed from its 18th century days. Population was shifting from rural America to cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution, fueling a demand for furniture and luxury goods which drew inspiration from historical styles. The Gothic revival was one of the first of various revival styles in America. The style began in Britain and by the 1840s, gothic motifs proliferated in American furniture, borrowing details from gothic churches and Medieval English architecture. The October 4 auction offers an armchair (Lot 274) that includes Gothic architectural characteristics, such as the rose window back, quatrefoils, pointed arches and crockets. In residences, gothic furniture and decorations were considered appropriate for libraries and hallways. However, the style never gained as much popularity as the later Rococo or Renaissance Revivals, as Gothic was often seen as “too ostentatious or stately” for interiors.
Gothic Revival furniture in the mid-19th century completed a room that was decked out in trefoils and pointed arches. However, the sculptural and architectural quality of a single piece, like this armchair, can add zest to any modern interior.
Nancy E. Richards, Nancy Goyne Evans, Wendy A. Cooper, and Michael S. Podmaniczky. New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (Winterthur, DE: Winterthur Museum, 1997)
Catherine Hoover Voorsanger and John K. Howat, Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000)