The craftsmanship in Chippendale chairs could and should amaze most of the modern furniture makers. The cabriole legs (formed from one convex curve on top of a thinner concave curve) are not just eye-catching but also mechanically stable. The rails and the styles are still joined with mortise and tenon technology. A horizontal seat frame is used to hold slip seat which usually can be upholstered wither in damask or check pattered fabric. Sometimes glue blocks are used under these frame for further support (which can only be seen when chairs are upside down).
The cabriole legs are extremely sophisticated as for the construction. Unlike some modern reproductions, a cabriole leg carved from a single wood block contains both the leg, knee and the corner part that will join on each side to two knee brackets (which further connect to seat rails ) to form a acanthus leaf carving. Thus the unification of the legs and the rails and the elimination of the seams between vertical parts made them sturdy yet not stuffy.
More interesting, chairs began to reflect the regional differences. All major cities would have their styles which can be summarized into two categories: regional preference and regional characteristics.
Two Chippendale chairs from the Cupola House in Brooklyn Museum vividly show the difference of the cabinet makers between stylish New York and the more restrained Boston.
From regional preference point of view, New York Chippendale chairs tend to be square, heavy, more solid ( or in other words a little bit squat) and more elaborately carved compared to those made in Boston. The puritanical New Englanders favored a more restrained, conservative style (which some people nowadays see as an virtue). In this case, the New York one has a carved splat with a tassel shape in the middle. The front skirt has gadrooning decoration, a reminiscence of dutch Baroque style. The Boston chair, even though from about the same period, still has stretchers even though they are structurally unnecessary.
From a regional characteristic point of view, there are more carving in this New York chair, from the crest rail to the back splat. In fact, the Boston chair is void of any carving in the back splat. But nothing is more evident to show the regional characteristics than the “ball and claw” feet. The New York Chippendale chairs, almost without exception, had talons closely grasping a squarish ball. The balls are in general big and the claw go downward straight. The Boston chair, in comparison, has much lighter and airy feet. The claw is carved more muscular and the tips of the claws clench inward as if the bird is ready to fly. (The Rhode Island Chippendale chairs even have space between the ball and the claw to make them such sough-after masterful looking!)
How could these regional characteristics came into being? Scholars usually relate to the local apprenticeship and workshops. Another possible reason is that by then furniture making had evolved into the primitive streamline manufacturing so that it was possible different cabinet makers bought the pre-made legs from the same famous workshop.
But interestingly the most easy-to-identify feature of Philadelphia Chippendale chairs is not the carving or feet, but the universal through mortise joining technology. From the back of the chair, one can see the tenon from the side rails. It is not something that customers pay attention to; nor something that regional cultural and social influence have an impact. Such feature has to be related to some cabinet makers. But Philadelphia at that time featured so many local and foreign furniture makers and in general it is not possible to trace back who made them. Possibly because of the easy access of local examples, those that made the best sell were finely studied by others. When such imitations were voiced in a large scale, the personal preference eventually became a regional construction style.
Chippendale is not the first type of chair when style and comfort, instead of clashing against each other, come to play together harmoniously. Earlier Queen Anne style chairs, with its smaller frame and beautiful curvy form, show the first sign of airiness, sleekness and elegance, the same characteristics that we tend to associate with modernity. The cabriole legs, lightly resting on pad feet, have a perfect balance between the charm and the intimacy.
The Brooklyn Museum has a set of Queen Anne side chairs which are not only best for their pristine condition and marvelous design, but also brings scholars with intriguing conflict between its regional preference and regional characteristics. These chairs are the original furniture to the Porter-Belden house in Wethersfield, CT and now displayed in the parlor room.
First, the set is a fine example of the Queen Anne style. Pad feet, cabriole legs, both splat and stiles are spoon-curved with the crest rounded to conform a natural smooth design. The splat, the most fashionable part of the chair, is formed by two different-sized vase shapes with the smaller one upside down and connected with bottom one through a ring shape. From the side view, the two side stiles are slightly forward compared to the splat so that the sitter can fee a little bit embraced by elegance. The pad feet are oval shaped, not as prominent as feet in later Chippendale style, but they sprawl outward with a candid openness. Inside the original seat is dried marsh grass, which is common in New England area. Such grass when dried can be very dense, thus it is not a bad alternative to the horse hairs.
Though we do not know who is the maker, his craftsmanship was admirable through quite a few construction details. A close examination may also reveal that in order to match the front cabriole legs, he chamfered the back legs so that they look almost rounded. Even more, to transition the semi-rounded legs to the square frame, he added an s-shaped triangle block to smooth such transformation. Also each seat is supposed to perfectly match each chair by means of a simple marking system. Inside of the front rail of one of the chairs, he carved three dents. The bottom of each seat (with its original canvas straps) also bears a number. Unfortunately such details were buried in the daily household life after years’ usage. Not surprisingly some number three seat was placed on number two chair since stacking seats together for cleaning is common and the wives or housemaids would seldom think of the underlining matching system for the set.
Secondly, the chairs, though lack of any written record, speak to themselves through a seemingly conflict between the regional preference and the regional characteristics. The chairs were made of cherry, the kind of wood that would not be favored in places like New York or Philadelphia. Cherry wood is commonly used for country area, such as Connecticut. Its simple and refrained shape also shows the puritanical regional preference. But the chairs all have the through mortise, a branded characteristics of Philadelphia makers. The museum scholar has thus conjectured that the maker was once apprenticed in Philadelphia. While he could bring the regional characteristics of the big cities to the countryside (since buyers would probably not notice such details), he could only make furniture that appeal to the local tastes.
Today, we sit on the chairs everyday, enjoying the comfort and seldom think they were once such a rarity. To some extent, we are both lucky and unlucky. The abundance of merchandise and materials have greatly reduced the cost of chairs. We can all be called “chairman” by the old standards. On the other hand, although furniture makers have been striving to make chairs cheaper, more stylish and more comfortable before and after the mass-production era, chairs have lost their distinctive hand-made characteristics. We look at the chairs in the museums, each of which epitomizes the craftsmanship of the maker’s predecessors and his own intelligence. Each one is unique in that the magic subtle human touch and handling. Sadly I don’t feel it on the super sleek IKEA chair that I am sitting on.