Chippendale furniture is an American design originating in the 16th century. It is mainly characterized by the style of the legs and feet and is frequently made of a dark colored wood. There are influences from the Queen Ann style, as well as Chinese design; the Chippendale aesthetic has stood the test of time as it has continued to be a part of interior design since its inception. Important pieces crafted by Chippendale can sell in the millions, but this style has been revived many times since the 1700s and can be found in a variety of price ranges.
The Origin of Chippendale
American furniture crafted in the Chippendale style was named after London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale's work in the mid-1700s. He became quite famous in his day after publishing The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, a guide for constructing a variety of furniture pieces.
American furniture made in the Chippendale style, which falls within the Colonial period, was conservative in comparison to English designs from the same timeframe. Chippendale is closely related to the earlier Queen Anne style, and it is important to remember that elements in furniture designs sometimes overlap as tastes change from period to period. Thus, you may find a piece that falls into the Chippendale category overall, but has a Queen Anne element or two as well.
Nevertheless, there are some telltale characteristics to look for when identifying Chippendale pieces including the woods incorporated, leg and foot styles, and other embellishments.
Woods Used in Chippendale Style Pieces
The finest Chippendale style pieces were usually crafted from mahogany, but other woods were used as well, such as walnut, cherry, and maple, to create more affordable furniture made in this style. Later versions often incorporate many different types of woods, and generally have a dark finish to mimic older pieces.
Chippendale Style Legs and Feet
Many Chippendale pieces have cabriole legs, which have a curve to them. American cabinetmakers from Newport, Rhode Island, often used classically styled reeded or fluted legs as well. Furniture makers in Philadelphia incorporated Rococo influences resulting in more elaborately carved legs. Some pieces, such as side chairs and small tables like the Pembroke style, have straight legs but other elements of Chippendale style are still present.
There are actually six different styles of legs and feet in Chippendale furniture: the lions paw, the ball-and-claw foot, the Late Chippendale, the Marlborough, the club, and the spade. The lions paw, named for its shape, and the ball and claw were based on the cabriole shape. The ball and claw was favored by American cabinetmakers as the claw belonged to an eagle. The Late Chippendale style features a square leg with a square foot. The most simple is the club, a simple round foot; the spade is a round, tapered leg with a square or trapezoid foot.
Frank Farmer Loomis IV, author of In Antiques 101, appreciated the long-established Queen Anne style but also realized that innovative designs were what kept sales flourishing. Thus, this enterprising cabinetmaker took inspiration from the Chinese as well as Gothic style and incorporated design elements, including the straight Marlborough leg.
Other Chippendale Style Features
While legs and feet often provide a good place to start when identifying Chippendale pieces, there are a number of other features to look for as well. In terms of the wood detail, top railings on chairs frequently have a yoked shape. Back splats (the thin piece of wood on the center of the back of a chair) on arm and side chairs can be intricately pierced and carved with ribbon motifs, although some chairs do have less ornate splats. Shell motifs carrying over from the Queen Anne period may be present but are not as prevalent in this style as they were earlier in the 1700s.
And when it came to the textile, Chippendale style settees, stools, and chairs were often upholstered with the finest of fabrics including beautiful silks.
Later Chippendale Styles
Many reproductions of the Chippendale style were produced around 1900 during the late-Victorian period. While these are antiques in their own right today, in comparison they do not have the finely crafted details found in early Chippendale style pieces, nor do they command the prices of true period furniture. Since most people can't afford the upper crust pieces, later examples do provide an antique alternative for those who like the style without the big budget.
Chippendale influence is still widely found in formal furniture design and manufacturing including the use of cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet. Some modern pieces completely copy older designs while others derive inspiration from this classic style melding them with modern influences.
Be sure to get the opinion of an antique furniture expert if you're not sure of its origin, especially if you're considering refinishing or altering the piece in any way. Many pieces of antique furniture are much more valuable in original condition.