CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Federal Style Furniture and How to Identify It

 
American Federal Dining Room Suite. Circa 1840 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 
American Federal Dining Room Suite. Circa 1840 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)

 
Like most design styles rooted in neoclassicism, the American Federal style of furniture is timeless, executed with clean lines and ornamentation that ensures it blends well with modern interiors. Because of this, furniture periods dating to the Federal era remains among the most sought-after antique furniture on the market, though quality period examples can be challenging to find. Also known as the early classical revival, the style became popular in the United States following the Revolutionary War; perhaps its association with America’s hard-won independence contributes to its continued popularity. That leads us to the question, what is federal style furniture? Read on to learn more about this distinct furniture style that emerged in the late 18th century.
 
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John and Thomas Seymour Sideboard. Circa 1800-1808 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 
John and Thomas Seymour Sideboard. Circa 1800-1808 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 

The Emergence of the Federal Style

The Federal style developed after two of the most groundbreaking discoveries of the modern era — that of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748. The ancient Italian cities had been buried by the volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and after their re-discovery, archeologists stumbled upon a civilization frozen in time. With each new phase of excavation, more insight into the everyday lives of the Romans came into view thanks to the unearthing of not only architecture, but also domestic pieces such as ceramics, glass, and furniture. For the first time in the modern age, Roman culture and design could be studied directly, and these studies had a resounding influence on the worlds of fashion and furniture design.

 
Simon Willard Roxbury Tall Case Clock. Circa 1793 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 

Simon Willard Roxbury Tall Case Clock. Circa 1793 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 

During the mid-18th century, Chippendale furniture and the Chippendale style, which first emerged in Georgian England as a subset of Georgian style furniture, were wildly popular in the United States. A mixture of Gothic, Rococo, and Oriental styles, it this style was highly ornamental with a penchant for dramatic flourishes, swirls, and asymmetrical design. However, as the excavations and discoveries in Italy became more widely known, a zeal for classicism emerged that introduced an entirely new set of aesthetic values, wherein symmetrical, geometric forms reigned supreme.

 

These decorative arts and aesthetics manifested themselves in different ways throughout the Western world. In France, the neoclassical furniture style was eagerly adopted by King Louis XVI, who abandoned the rococo style preferred by his grandfather, Louis XV. In England, neoclassicism was embraced by the architect Robert Adams, whose travels to Italy afforded him first-hand knowledge of the classical world. The furniture designers George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton both published books that helped to bring Adams’ furniture design ideals into the mainstream. When neoclassicism was introduced in America following the Revolutionary War, it became deeply tied to a patriotic feeling that permeated the new Republic; hence, it earned its moniker, “Federal.”

 
American Federal Sideboard. Circa 1795–1805 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
 

American Federal Sideboard. Circa 1795–1805 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
 

Federal Style Furniture Identifiers

There are several key furniture style characteristics used to identify Federal style furniture. First, pieces crafted during this period were almost always made with straight lines that were markedly different from the curves of the Chippendale furniture style or the opulence of Baroque period furniture. Some curves were still seen, but very minimally, perhaps in a shield decoration or the back or seat of a chair. Sideboards, cabinets, and tables were almost always rectilinear, with lines that met at symmetrical right angles and stood on delicate, tapered legs.
 

Despite their general lack of curve, furniture forms were quite graceful, presenting an appearance of lightness and slenderness. Proportions were always symmetrical, relying on classical ideals of balance set forth by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Surfaces and lines were generally smooth and flat with very little three-dimensional decoration. While French neoclassical design often featured gilt bronze mountings, American Federal furniture ornamentation was more usually found in intricate carving designs or wood inlays. Motifs were inspired by antiquity — urns, swags, paterae, acanthus leaves, eagles, and fans.

 
American Federal Breakfront Cabinet. Circa 1840 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 

American Federal Breakfront Cabinet. Circa 1840 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
 

Because ornamentation of Federal furniture was relatively understated, it perhaps comes as a surprise that the design of the period favored a vibrant color palette. Interior walls were often painted in deep jewel tones of red, blue, and green, while the furniture was sometimes painted in saturated hues. Furthermore, wood inlays favored sharp contrast, and light woods such as satinwood were often inlaid into deep mahogany.

 

It is perhaps their stunning and contrasting veneers that most distinguish furniture of the Federal period. Thanks to increased trade following the Revolutionary War, several new and exotic woods were available to furniture makers of the age. They displayed astonishing craftsmanship, with dramatic banding and intricate string inlays accenting decorative figural designs of neoclassical motifs. These furniture façades rivaled even the best French furniture inlays of the age, and they remain the very finest in the history of American furniture.

 
Tambour desk by John and Thomas Seymour. Circa 1800 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
 

Tambour desk by John and Thomas Seymour. Circa 1800 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
 

The Federal Home

Following the Revolutionary War (1775-83), also known as the American Revolution, the country experienced an unprecedented period of wealth and prosperity. The economy expanded in many significant ways as men earned their fortunes through land speculation, trade with the East, and a general surge of demand for consumer goods among the American people. With the influx of money into the economy, a wealthy upper-middle class soon emerged, and many began spending their new income on stylish interior design and household furnishing.

 
Central Pavilion, 1793–94, by Charles Bulfinch, at the Tontine Crescent, Boston
 

Central Pavilion, 1793–94, by Charles Bulfinch, at the Tontine Crescent, Boston
 

Alongside Federal design emerged Federal architecture, based on the design ethos of the Englishman Robert Adams, which greatly expanded domestic interior design and layout. Before this period, most American homes did not include a traditional dining room with a table and dining chairs. Therefore, most families ate formal meals in parlors or bed chambers. However, the dining room came into fashion in the post-Revolutionary years, marking a dramatic change in the domestic space and the flow of daily life. Naturally, new household items were required to furnish the dining room, including chandeliers, sideboards, large dining tables, wine coolers, glassware, silverware, and plateaus, among other luxuries. After dining gained its own formal space, parlors also shifted to a more casual entertaining space, with new furnishings such as comfortable seatings and card tables.

 

In many ways, this general change in domestic homes reflected the optimism and joie de vivre of the post-war years and, the national pride of the nation. By tying their homes to the classical past, it became clear that Americans saw their own country in the might and grandeur of the ancient Roman Empire.

 

These aesthetic connections became all the clearer with the emergence of the American Empire style around 1815; alternatively known as the later classical revival, it would officially supplant the Federal style. However, it was not the end of the Federal style; it experienced a resurgence in the early 20th century that has lasted to the present day. While you can easily find modern-day replicas on the market today, authentic Federal-era furniture is rare and valuable, making it an awe-inspiring addition to modern interiors.

 

To learn about other furniture periods, such as Victorian furniture styles, or to browse M.S. Rau’s entire collection of antique furnishings and other antiques for sale, visit our website.

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