While this style was going strong in France even earlier, and the English had their Regency designs of the same influence, Empire designs didn’t really take hold in the United States until about 1815. This was a continuation of earlier neoclassical styles like Hepplewhite and Sheraton, but with a much stronger influences in terms of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian ornamentation. Literally for decades, all the way through the mid-19th century, the Empire look was in fashion in America.
One of the interesting aspects of Empire styles is that they were seen at all price points. The wealthy often purchased very elegant pieces while those living more modestly could more readily buy items for “cottage use,” which had plainer veneers or were painted, according to American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas and Beds by Marvin D. Schwartz (now out of print, but widely available through used booksellers).
The more elegant pieces are the ones that get the most attention from collectors and antique furniture aficionados. “Empire furnishings with their undulating scrolls balancing heavy geometric shapes, complemented the Greek Revival architecture of the period. Ornament was carved in high relief; inlays were abandoned in favor of stenciling and gilded brass or bronze decoration. Other pieces were kept simple by omitting carving and emphasizing the overall line,” shared Schwartz.
Furniture examples in the Empire style include the Klismos side chair, two daybed styles called the Méridienne and the Récamier, the popular pier table, the Scroll-end sofa (see a typical settee example illustrated above), and the sleigh bed to name a few.
Woods and Ornamentation
A number of different types of woods were used during this period including rosewood and mahogany with rich graining. Some pieces had pine bases with mahogany veneers, and when crafted nicely together they had the appearance of solid wood. Those with simpler graining in the veneer usually fall into the cottage furniture category.
Marble tops on tables were also popular during this period. Ormolu laurel wreaths decorated the sides and fronts of desks and cabinets to help to prevent scratching and nicks in the wood. High relief carvings included pineapples, cornucopias, acanthus leaves, and the statement-making caryatid.
“The Sphinx, resembling a Pharaoh’s head on a body of a lion with claw feet, enthralled everyone. Soon claw feet became an Empire icon bedecking everything from chairs to beds,” said Frank Farmer Loomis IV in Antiques 101. However, claw feet on American pieces were mostly carved while on French styles they tended to be ormolu. He also notes that legs for tables and other pieces were often fashioned like classically shaped columns.
Working in The Empire Style
Charles-Honore’ Lannuier, a French immigrant, was one of the first cabinetmakers to introduce this style in America, according to Schwartz. He added gilded carving to his pieces that made them elegant and appealing in his New York workshop.
Duncan Phyfe’s shop was influenced by this style as well in the 1820s and 1830s, but in a much more restrained way although still quite elegant in its appearance. But the more elaborate designs came out of Boston and Philadelphia.
All the craftsmen working in this style were likely fed by publications of the day. They included designs based on those shown in British author Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Design and others adapted from French styles.
Of course, the name Empire originating from the French wasn’t used in England due to political conflicts with France at the time. The British preferred Regency as their moniker for the style with many of the same elements. Americans, being friendlier with the French than England after our own conflict for independence, took to the name Empire more readily back then, and it endures when describing these pieces today. Occasionally the term Classical will be used to describe these styles as well.