Style Guide: Federal-Style American Furniture

Style Guide: Federal-Style American Furniture

Anna Hoffman
Jul 7, 2011
A Federal period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By the time America was officially independent from Britain, centers of furniture production were already developing up and down the Eastern seaboard. Wealthy American customers would still occasionally import goods from Britain and Europe when possible, but were increasingly turning to accomplished local workshops in cities like Boston, New York and Baltimore.

Many of the most famous furniture makers of the early-19th century were immigrant craftsmen, who brought traditional European techniques and fashionable styles to the young country. Here is a very brief guide to some of the top Federal-style furniture-makers in the American Northeast.

In the early-19th century in America, as in Europe, the Neoclassical style was all the rage. In the US, the fashion for Neoclassicism was not only aesthetic, but also symbolic, since the Founding Fathers had modeled their new nation on Greek democracy. The resulting style was a spare, restrained Neoclassicism known as Federal style. Based on the English Georgian or Adam style, Federal-style furniture was characterized by sober mahoganies, straight tapered lines, and modest carving. Common motifs were fluting (a reference to classical columns), arrows, acanthus leaves, eagles and lyres.

Mahogany armchair by Duncan Phyfe, c. 1805-1810, at the New-York Historical Society

One of the most famous designers in this style was Duncan Phyfe, a Scottish immigrant who opened his workshop in New York City in the early 1800s. Incredibly successful, Phyfe worked in several styles before his death in the mid-century, but some of his best-known furniture is from his early, Federal period.

A modern rendering of the Madison White House's "Elliptical Saloon," 1810-14, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe to display the 'Grecian' style that was ironically very popular in Britain

Benjamin Henry Latrobe was another immigrant designer who made a huge impact on American style. Latrobe was a British architect (with a mother from the American colonies) who is best known for the US Capitol. In 1809, President James Madison appointed Latrobe to design the interior of the White House along with Dolley Madison, the First Lady. Ironically, though this was a White House at war with Britain, Latrobe designed it in the same Greek Revival style that was taking London by storm.

A painted ('fancy') klismos chair made by the Finlay Brothers according to Benjamin Latrobe's design for the Madison White House

Latrobe commissioned John and Hugh Finlay, two brothers from Baltimore, to execute his designs for Greek-revival furniture. The furniture was lost in the War of 1812 when British troops set fire to Washington, but Latrobe's design sketches remain, as do identical klismos chairs by the Finlay brothers. The Finlays specialized in 'fancy,' or painted, furniture, and you can see the classical and geometric motifs painted onto the chair above.

A sideboard made by Thomas Seymour, possibly with his father John, c. 1805-1810

In Boston, John Seymour and his son Thomas were making use of their own English heritage, making beautiful Federal furniture that was generally pretty sober, but often matched the quality and interest of pieces actually imported from Europe. The Seymours enjoyed several years of popularity in Boston, but it was short-lived. Anti-British sentiment after the War of 1812 was the final nail in the coffin. John died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave, and Thomas eventually retired from furniture-making, and died in obscurity.

American Empire-style card table by Charles-Honoré Lannuier, 1817

The Federal style eventually gave way to a more luxurious interpretation of ancient classical forms based on the French Empire style, closely associated with Napoleon, who modeled himself after the Roman emperors. This was still Neoclassicism, but heading toward ancient Roman decadence, and away from Greek austerity. In America, Empire style was often in direct imitation of French examples (at this time, France was a close political and cultural ally against the British). The furniture tended to be more massive and grand than Federal style, and was characterized by dark woods contrasting with heavy gilt bronze mounts. Motifs included stars, winged caryatids, sphinxes and other Egyptian symbols that speak to the general 'Egyptomania' that was going on in France due to the Napoleonic Wars.

Charles-Honoré Lannuier, a French immigrant, was one of the most prominent designers in the Empire style. His traditional French craftsmanship and adept translation of continental style made Lannuier a favorite of wealthy Americans.

There were obviously many other prominent Federal-style furniture-makers in the early-19th century, but these examples are representative, and you can see the commonalities. Immigrant designers brought their craft traditions and European sophistication to the United States. Tapping into a growing middle-class market, they produced furniture that was at once sober and decorative, tasteful and showy, a perfect balance for people who were transitioning from the Old World to the New.

With the Federal style came the first truly American style, one that paradoxically announced its democratic ideals while also respecting European tradition.

1 The parlor from the James Duncan, Jr., House in Haverhill, Massachusetts, ca. 1805, a period room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
2 Mahogany and oak armchair by Duncan Phyfe, ca. 1805-1810, at the New-York Historical Society
3 A modern rendering by Peter Waddell of the Elliptical Saloon in the Madison White House, c. 1810-1814, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, via the White House Historical Association
4 Klismos side chair, c. 1815-20, attributed to Hugh and John Finlay, identical to a design by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, at the Met
5 Sideboard by Thomas Seymour, possibly with his father, John, c. 1805-1810, at the Met
6 Charles-Honoré Lannuier's mahogany-veneered card table with gilt-bronze mounts, c. 1817, at the Met.

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