What is American Empire Style Furniture?
Cheese, wine, blue jeans, whiskey- some things just get better with age. American Empire-style furniture is no exception. This category of antique furniture can be characterized by its ability to combine controlled beauty with ornate embellishments through features like clawed feet, intricate carvings, and twisting columns that often feature birds, sea creatures, and other animal motifs. While most antique furniture may look similar to an untrained eye, all eras offer unique design features that accentuate the charm and tell stories of their prime era.
American Empire-style furniture is French-inspired and originates from the Empire style that was popular during the First French Empire. Though the style’s base was in France, it was also inspired by British designs and Greek and Roman aesthetics, making it highly original in its final combination of features. The neoclassical style was popularized in America around 1820 when it dominated the design movement in nearly every capacity dawning its features in architecture, visual arts, furniture, and more.
Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854) was an American furniture maker in New York who is largely credited with popularizing American Empire-style furniture in the United States. In part, increased popularity can also be ascribed to Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779-1819). Lannuier was an Empire designer who immigrated from France to the United States in the early 1800s. Both Phyfe and Lannuier strove to produce furniture that separated the United States from Western Europe. Shortly after the design’s introduction, other major furniture centers in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore began producing the style with regional twists.
Initially, this furniture style made its debut through cabinetry before moving to other types of furniture and art. Characteristics like gilt-brass furniture mounts, ornate carvings, and decorative inlays with patterns and shapes serve as identifiers for this beautiful antique furniture style. Throughout the 19th century, political tensions between the United States and Europe caused furniture makers to devote enhanced efforts to the patriotic quality of the American Empire style as a means to assert individualism and capitalize on the nation’s freedom.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) also pioneered the popularization of this new furniture design. Upon his return from service as an ambassador to France in the late 1700s, Jefferson’s taste transitioned from French aesthetics to the toned-down and subdued features of American Empire-style furniture. Though he maintained a level of influence from Empire-style artists, Jefferson advocated for the popularization of the asceticism of Greek and Roman designs mixed with French Empire and British furniture styles. The crossing of Greek and Roman features like scrolls and pillars with stylized feet and the use of dark woods in French Empire furniture, along with British simplicity, led to the dawning of an entirely new aesthetic.
From 1815 to 1825, consumers enjoyed a decade of intricate and elaborate designs surrounding all kinds of furniture, from sofas to cupboards and tables. Products became extremely detailed incorporating elements like animal-paw feet, rope-twist carving, individual shapes, acanthus-leaf ornamentation, and even gilding, at times! Over the next few years, the designs became less conspicuous, emitting a healthy blend of embellished and undemonstrative.
The Red Room in the White House is a perfect example of the style’s timelessness and patriotic appeal. Most recently decorated by Jackie Kennedy (1929-1994), the Red Room is full of richly carved and dark-finished woods adorned with gilded bronze hardware. If you were to look closely at the wood, you would find characteristic carvings of dolphins, lions, sphinxes, and more. Since the mid-1900s, the fabrics and upholstery in the Red Room were woven and produced in the United States based on French Empire designs. The walls and the furniture share the same shade of red, tastefully complementing the beige, red, and gold carpet. The carpet provides a coordinated surface on which the American Empire-style furniture rests, and it is a reproduction of the White House Collection French Savonnerie carpet from the early 19th century. In addition to American Empire furnishings, the room contains fixtures that coincide with the rest of the design scheme. A thirty-six-light French Empire chandelier is a focal point of the room. Even today, the chandelier, carved and gilded around 1805, serves as a sophisticated and essential element of the Red Room.
Defining characteristics of this style include clean lines, dark and heavy woods (mahogany was popular), monotone cloth upholstery, and intricate designs (often animal themed) along the feet or legs of the furniture. Though inspired by European craftsmanship, the details within the furniture embodied the spirit of new Americans during its prime. The ornate details and architectural elements exude national pride, humbleness, and restraint. Popular animal carvings on the furniture featured dolphins representing harmony and protection and lion’s heads which boast the American values of bravery, strength, and excellence. Even eagle carvings show fierce nationalism within the details of the furniture. In the same way, America became an immigration hub and cultural melting pot of the world, American Empire-style furniture combines the best features from designs originating in other cultures and unifies them for an all-American style.
Drawing on the very foundations of American settlement, the furniture’s artwork indicates bounty through carvings of garland and cornucopias. Though some pieces were highly embellished, particularly at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the majority of productions became more restrained in decoration to represent the piety and humbleness of America in contrast with French lavishness. The transition to the American Empire style was seen as a nationalistic statement that honored the inspiration of Neoclassical tradition while asserting American aesthetics and values in a practical way.
American Empire-style furniture offers an unusual combination of both restraint and embellishment that seamlessly defines one of the most charming and patriotic styles of antique furniture. Symbolizing fortitude, humility, and courage, the furniture’s dark wood carvings and elegant monotone upholstery provide a unique asset to any space while serving as a window to America’s revolutionary past. Though its peak remains in the early nineteenth century, American Empire-style furniture has been enjoyed for hundreds of years and continues to tell the story of our country’s foundations.
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