Furniture & Decorative Arts

Fashionable Designs for American Furniture

In eighteenth-century America, a new country began forging its identity, while simultaneously keeping up with the latest London fashions. In order to fit homes in the newest styles, furniture makers adapted designs from cabinetmaker and upholsterer’s published pattern books. Approximately nineteen different English pattern books were known and used in eighteenth-century America. Craftsmen in America quoted designs directly, borrowed motifs, and interpreted these designs for their elite clientele. Cabinetmakers and upholsterers in eighteenth-century England established the precedent for using pattern books illustrating architecture and furniture to guide tradesmen in construction of the day’s fashionable furniture.

London booksellers came to the United States prior to the Revolution, bringing pattern books with them, including Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director, first published in 1754 in London. The most widely owned pattern book in America in the eighteenth century, Chippendale’s Director’s third edition of 1762 portrayed furniture with classical proportions in Chinese, French, and Gothic styles. Chippendale design references were particularly popular in Philadelphia, where the Library Company lent their copy to local cabinetmakers. References were also found in furniture from the Chesapeake Bay region and Charleston, South Carolina, and Thomas Jefferson is recorded to have owned a copy. In actuality, few cabinetmakers could afford to own their own copies of English pattern books.

Chippendale Chairs
(Left) Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director Plate 12. (Right)  The Smith Family set of eight Chippendale Mahogany Chairs from 1775-1785 (sold at Doyle) took vestiges from Chippendale plate 12 including interlaced arches and a pointed quatrefoil.

Sheraton pattern Woodward chair
(Left) Sheraton, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book plate 36. (Right) James Woodward armchair, The Dallas Museum of Art.

Later in the eighteenth century, two English design books highly influencing American furniture were Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (published in London in 1793, 1794, and 1803) and George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (published in London in 1788, 1789, and 1794). An armchair at the Dallas Museum of Art depicts a heavy reliance on Sheraton’s Plate 36, No. 1. Neoclassical elements including the urn, swags, feathers, and columns were often found on furniture from New York and Philadelphia.1 Hepplewhite’s Guide dominated designs in Baltimore, Hartford, and Salem at the end of the eighteenth century. A set of six Federal side chairs circa 1790 from Providence (sold at Doyle in 2016) derived the serpentine crest and pierced splat with urn from Hepplewhite’s Plate 4.

Hepplewhite, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide plate 4. (Right) Detail of Federal side chairs (sold at Doyle 2016).

The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices was issued in Philadelphia in 1794 and 1796. Describing various furniture forms, patrons could choose different elements from the manual and pay accordingly, linking design and price.

The early nineteenth century saw a new influence from France. Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine’s Recueil Des Decorations Interieures published in 1801 defined a new bolder classical style influenced from antiquity and forged a connection between furniture design and interior decoration.

French-born New York cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier worked primarily in the Neoclassical or Empire style. Prior to arriving in New York, Lannuier had established himself as a trained craftsman and took these skills with him while adapting to American furniture making. Doyle sold an impressive assembled pair of classical ormolu mounted mahogany swivel top card tables attributed to Lannuier, New York, circa 1815. The lions paw feet ending in leafy decoration are similar to the designs in Recueil.2

Pierre de La Mésangère’s Collection de Meubles et Objets de Gout, Volume 3; Workshop of Duncan Phyfe, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fashions shifted to depict the current French taste in le gout antique of the Directoire and Consulat periods (1795-1804). The tastes of le gout antique took on an English vocabulary in the form of the Regency style with a Greek twist. This Grecian style characterized the designs of New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. Fashion journalist Pierre de La Mésangère’s Collection de Meubles et Objets de Gout published in Paris 1802-1835, was among several publications that likely influenced Phyfe. A pier table attributed to Duncan Phyfe’s workshop in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art incorporates S-shaped console supports with minimal carving and veneered surfaces straight out of Mésangère.3

A.W.N. Pugin, Ornaments of the 15th and 16th Century. (Right) Gothic Mahogany Hall Chair (sold at Doyle 2012).

A gothic mahogany hall chair (sold at Doyle in 2012) with trefoils, quatrefoils, pointed arches, and crockets. The English Gothic Revival was immensely influential in America in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  It is possible the chair may have been influenced by gothic motifs in books such as A.W.N. Pugin’s Ornaments of the 15th and 16th Centuries.


Further Reading:
Heckscher, Morrison H. “English Furniture Pattern Books in Eighteenth-Century America.” In American Furniture 1994, edited by Luke Beckerdite, pp. 173-205. Milwaukee: Chipstone Foundation, 1994.

1 Charles L Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989), 74-76.
2 Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter, and Ulrich Leben, Honore Lannuier, Cabinetmaker from Paris: The Life and Work of a French Ebeniste in Federal New York (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1998), 184.
3Peter M. Kenny, Michael K. Brown, Frances F. Bretter, and Matthew A. Thurlow, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011),  69, 95.

Portrait of specialist Leigh Kendrick
Cataloguer, American Furniture & Decorative Arts
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Portrait of specialist David A.  Gallager
SVP/Executive Director, Furniture & Decorations
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