In 1754, Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director, considered to be the "bible" of furniture design of its day. The designs he documented within the text would become so influential that they dominated the furniture styles of the 18th century and beyond. Today, the name Chippendale invokes images of refined taste and unparalleled elegance, and this article is designed to help navigate the world of identifying and collecting these coveted furnishings.
Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779)
Thomas Chippendale was born in 1718 to John and Alice Chippendale, a farming family living in the Yorkshire region of England. Little is known about Chippendale's early career, but it was typical for that of a cabinetmaker of his period. He apprenticed with an established workshop, Robert Wood of York, then set out on his own after gaining enough experience. In 1740, he founded his own cabinetmaking shop and began designing furniture. In 1753 he moved to St. Martin’s Lane in London, where he operated his business for the rest of his life. Soon, this modest craftsman counted among his distinguished clientele countless members of nobility and society, including Catherine II of Russia and famed actor David Garrick. He also obtained substantial contracts with the noble houses of Nostell Priory, Harewood House, Burton Constable, Ayrshire and Kent, some of which still house many of his finest pieces in their private collections.
Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director contained over 161 plates with an astounding range of furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Rococo styles. In the 18th century, furniture makers and designers were heavily influenced by classical architecture and design, and subsequent publications of the text throughout Europe and North America included many Neoclassical designs.
The impact of Chippendale’s designs on the history of both furniture and the whole of interior design cannot be overstated. His Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director was the first interior design text ever published, and it showcased to the world Chippendale’s gift for line, proportion and superior craftsmanship. His designs and theories were so pivotal that he was the first cabinetmaker to boast such a strong following that an entire style bears his name and not that of a monarch. Thus, “Chippendale” or “Chippendale-style” became shorthand for any furnishing deriving from his original Director designs. The designs featured in this catalog were so popular that they were copied for decades to come by other English makers such as Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite, and they are still made by contemporary manufacturers today.
Original Chippendale and Chippendale-style pieces are characterized by several shared distinguishing design elements, for instance, bracket feet. These are supports that are shaped like half-circles or diamonds at the bottom of antique chairs, chests or tables. Because of this and because so many people today collect fine furniture from this period, it is crucial to know how to identify genuine Thomas Chippendale pieces. Few pieces that bear the Chippendale name can actually be attributed to his workshop. Fortunately, some key characteristics can help us tell authentic pieces apart from those that are Chippendale-style.
How to Identify Chippendale Furniture
Many have tried to match Chippendale's exquisite eye for design, line and proportion, but few have succeeded in approaching his level. Due to its timeless style and lasting popularity, Chippendale-style furniture is common, both antique and contemporary. However, with some guidance, it is simple to identify pieces that are Chippendale in style only.
For those interested in collecting Chippendale furniture, there are several things to keep in mind. First of all, it is imperative to purchase your pieces from reputable dealers. Reputable dealers will indicate furnishings appropriately as “Chippendale-style” when not directly attributed to Thomas Chippendale. Authentic Chippendale works will be listed simply as “Chippendale” or “attributed to Chippendale’s workshop.” Second, keep in mind that while design aesthetics did vary from Neoclassical to Rococo to Chinese and beyond, Chippendale’s quality in both craftsmanship and materials never wavered.
What is Chippendale Furniture Made Of?
Original Chippendale pieces are characterized by their use of the finest materials. They were made with a combination of timbers, such as mahogany, walnut and satinwood, and they were typically accented with brilliant gilt brass hardware. Chippendale also used these timbers in unique ways, often utilizing cross-grain cuts rather than long-grain to add visual interest.
Thomas Chippendale Design and Construction Elements
Furniture interiors and joining can also provide clues to a piece’s origins. Drawers, in particular, can contain a wealth of knowledge. Chippendale lined his drawer interiors with various quality woods depending on their function. Mahogany was utilized when extra strength was needed, cedar for storing clothes, and oak for more functional pieces. One of the most telling drawer features is the presence of dovetails. A dovetail is a joint in woodworking formed by one or more tapered “pins” cut into the wood and interlocked with corresponding notches. Marked by their resistance to being pulled apart, dovetails are an indicator of fine craftsmanship, and any Chippendale piece should have them. When they are not present, that means it has been constructed using nails and glue, likely in a factory.
Chippendale favored several small details in his furnishings that he believed added a level of refinement to his designs. He preferred distinctive S-shaped keyholes for his drawers, and in a chair’s arm supports, he always joined them to the seat rail rather than the top of the leg. His desks utilized a unique hidden two-castor system that helped correct for uneven floors so that the writing surface would remain level.
As discussed earlier, Chippendale pieces are often characterized by their use of fine materials like mahogany or rosewood. Chippendale guarded heavily against rot in these woods by utilizing his signature “red wash,” used to help the timber resist damage and worm infestation. Chippendale was one of only a small handful of furniture artisans in the world to use this specific technique, so spotting this trademark is an excellent indicator of a Chippendale original.
Where Can You Get Chippendale Furniture?The popularity of Chippendale furniture holds firm today, but original Thomas Chippendale furnishings are quite rare; thus, they can be highly difficult to source. You can explore M.S. Rau’s current selection of Chippendale furniture and other antique items on our website.