You’re very welcome to read Part One of the series before starting with this one.
The 18th century was the prime century for furniture design, but the 19th century saw a wider range of techniques and materials. These developments allowed furniture makers to experiment with other types of designs, and allowed for furniture itself to fulfill other kinds of needs.
French furniture becomes especially popular during this time, as it was much more luxurious, charged, and ornamented than British furniture. It became a sign of extreme wealth, as aristocrats needed to constantly set themselves apart from the lower classes, as well as their wealthy peers.
We have to take two terms into consideration when talking about 19th century furniture: The Belle Époque (that’s French for ‘beautiful era’), and the Industrial Revolution. What Chippendale had achieved was now becoming a widespread practice around Europe, and furniture began to divide itself between the commonplace and the really, really unaffordable stuff.
Furniture began as a need, Chippendale made it into an elegant commodity, and Parisian designers made it a luxury.
Much of this baggage, of course, came to America. While Europeans were evolving towards the innovative and moved away from the baroque, Americans wanted to craft their own national identity. In order to differentiate their furniture style from that of the snobbish Europeans, they went thousands of years back in time and created something called neoclassicism.
‘Neoclassicism’ simply meant that they did what I didn’t want to do at the beginning of this series: they explored ancient Greek and Roman furniture and recreated it on a modern setting. They also incorporated and copied most European developments, including everything we just talked about from Chippendale to France, and thus, the Federal style was born.
The Federal style was much more calm, much more stoic, and much less ornamented than its rival European styles. It is currently represented in the kind of furniture that you’d see on the President’s Oval Office. It had a thing for sleekness and straight lines, and it incorporated national motifs like the eagle and other American symbols.
In 1820, America started moving towards their own industrial revolution and as the nation grew in power, so did the furniture. The Empire style was born from this shift in history, and it made American furniture almost as luxurious as its Parisian counterparts. They kept doing this until they reached a point that was called the Late Classical style.
After this period, American designers sort of grew tired of their late-classical inclinations and began doing something called ‘revivalism,’ which simply means ‘trying to get back to what we initially intended to do.’ They didn’t completely achieve that, however, as they incorporated elements from various cultures and ended up creating a completely new kind of American furniture.
Revivalist furniture was a staple until the beginning of the 20th century, where things really started to get good. I mean, if you’ve read anything about mid-century furniture, you know this is where the real deal begins. Yes, we are going to talk about Art Nouveau and all of those things. But wait, isn’t that term European? You’re right again, it is. If you can’t beat them, join them.
We’ll get back to Europe on part three of this series, but not completely. Stay tuned.