Monday, February 1, 2010

Reviving the Essence of Colonial Furniture

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this desk. My grandmother told me it was a Chippendale, but I can't find any desk that lookS like it for a reference. There are no desks that have the scallop pattern on the pull down. or brass hardware railing on the top.

ANSWER: What this person has is a fine example of what's called Colonial Revival furniture. Her grandmother wasn't too far off. Her desk was made in the style of Chippendale, but it's not a Chippendale. That's why she couldn't find it anywhere.

But let's look at what it is. Colonial Revival was a style period that lasted from about 1880 to 1910. Everyone who went to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 got excited by the exhibits on Colonial America and wanted to have interiors that reflected that period. Unfortunately, not many of the designers did much research into what Colonial furniture–18th century furniture looked like. So what resulted was a hodge-podge of decoration that resembled a little of one 18th-century designer and a little of that one.

Chippendale was a biggie. They loved his style. Sheraton and Hepplewhite were also popular. Think of the development houses of today. Each has a hodge-podge of decorative elements, but no house exactly reproduces a particular style of architecture. You see Colonial, French Provincial, Tudor, etc. elements in each house–and it seems every house has a palladium window.

After the Colonial Revival Period came to an end, furniture manufacturers continued to employ these pseudo-Colonial styles in what came to be commonly known as “Period” furniture. This was all the rage in upper middle class households in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s, “Period” furniture had trickled down to the middle class, who wanted their interiors to look as elegant as those of the rich folks but at a much lower price. Manufacturers used mostly dark mahogany finishes or veneers to give their pieces an elegant Colonial look much like the pieces at venerated historic houses like Mount Vernon. The giveaway on this desk are the drawer pulls and the feet. Both are too highly decorative to have been on a true Colonial piece.

If you have a piece of furniture like this that dates to the beginning of the 20th century, you have a fine piece which has value in its own right, but not the value of an 18th-century antique. However, if you have a “Period” piece from the 1930s-1940s onward, it’s only value lies in its being a piece of used furniture.

To learn more about authentic Chippendale furniture, go to Chippendale--The Royalty of Antique Furniture.
To learn more about the revival styles of the Victorian Era, go to THE VICTORIAN ERA--An Age of Revivals.

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