Good Reproductions: Baker Furniture Solves the Colonial Revival Riddle

This Baker chair shows a strong Empire influence. (LiveAuctioneers.com/DuMouchelles photo)

After the American Revolution ended in 1783, the fledgling country struggled to establish its new identity in a number of areas, including furniture style and design. It plowed through the Federal period—unabashedly using the ideas of English designers like Hepplewhite and Sheraton—and then climbed into the Empire period in the footsteps of Napoleon. When the English crown again beckoned, this time in the form of Queen Victoria, in the mid-19th century, American furniture styles reverted to customized versions of the European revival forms for most of the rest of the century. Until, that is, the Centennial Exposition in 1876, which ushered in the longest-lasting continuous furniture movement in American history: Colonial Revival, an appreciation of and interest in furniture styles and forms from the early years of this country as a colony of the English crown.

Philadelphia hosted the nation’s 100th birthday party in the form of a great exhibition of furniture and technology from across the country and around the world. While the most popular setting at the Exposition was the Japanese exhibit, and most of the American furniture on display was in the battleship-scale of the Renaissance Revival style, there was an awakening of interest in what American furniture had looked like 100 years before, when the country’s founding fathers had the nerve to start the struggle for independence.

In spite of the commercial success and public accolades of the Centennial Exhibition, sentiment at the grassroots level was still looking over its shoulder to the glorious Colonial past. An effort was made, by those who could, to surround themselves with articles from this era, attaching a new importance to history, value and integrity. This was the beginning of the Colonial Revival. It soon became apparent, however, that there were many more Victorians wanting to acquire Colonial antiques than there were actual Colonial antiques. In a collection of essays originally written for Scribner’s Monthly and published in book form in 1877 as “The House Beautiful,” Clarence Cook, a contemporary art critic, stated the obvious. He noted the shortage of genuine Colonial antiques and suggested that well executed reproductions would do just as well as the real thing. That opened the flood gates.

Hepplewhite SB full – This is a Colonial Revival Federal period sideboard made by Baker fashioned after a design by George Hepplewhite. Hepplewhite was an English designer whose work was popular in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s Federal period. He is best known for his design of the oval drawer pulls of the period that bear his name. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Lewis & Maese Auction Co photo)

This graceful Baker sideboard is also Hepplewhite style. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Pook & Pook photo)

While the two concepts would later seem to be at odds with each other, the revival of interest in colonial American furniture and colonial reproductions coincided with the advent of the basic tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement, a return to basic craftsmanship and honesty in construction techniques as espoused by William Morris, Charles Eastlake and Elbert Hubbard.

A number of companies such as Sypher & Company of New York and Potthast Brothers of Baltimore were making faithful reproductions of 18th-century items, often in bench-made fashion rather than on an assembly line. Some of the items were even completely hand done. By the 1920s, some small shops were also doing excellent work, such as Margolis in Hartford and of course Wallace Nutting in Massachusetts. But their work, while excellent, was limited in quantity and could not satisfy the growing demand for good work at a reasonable price in large volume.

These elegant baker Chippendale armchairs have square chamfered Marlborough legs and intricately detailed pierce carved splats. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Susanin’s Auction photo)

A pair of Baker Queen Anne style chairs with reverse scroll arms, patterned after a style from 1730-1750. The arms intensify the curvaceous design of the chairs. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Pook & Pook photo)

Then along came Hollis Baker, son of Siebe Baker, the Dutch immigrant who founded the firm of Cook and Baker in 1893 in Holland, Mich., near Grand Rapids. By 1925, the company was called Baker & Company and Hollis Baker was the president. He had a great interest in the Arts and Crafts movement and was especially interested in handcrafted furniture from the 18th century. But he saw the reality of the business situation and knew that whoever could solve the problem of combining the quality of handcrafted furniture with the practicalities of mass production would be very successful. In an article in “The Furniture Blue Book” in 1923, Baker wrote, “It is not so hard to make beautiful things where unlimited time and money can be spent. But to bring beauty within the reach of the average man is an even higher accomplishment. It is here that the opportunity lies in the furniture trade.”

And Baker attacked the opportunity with zeal. The company introduced a line of American reproduction furniture in 1922, a Duncan Phyfe suite in 1923 and furniture based on Pilgrim styling in 1926. The company was renamed Baker Furniture Factories in 1927 and began to specialize in high-quality, faithfully executed reproductions. Meanwhile, Baker traipsed all over Europe looking for examples that could be sent back to Holland and Grand Rapids as examples. By 1931, the company was producing a line of Georgian mahogany furniture called the “Old World Collection” and in 1932 opened the Manor House in New York City to produce top-of-the-line, handmade reproductions, faithful down to the dovetailing and finishing.

This Baker Regency style drum table was originally designed by Thomas Sheraton. The form was developed in the late 18th century based on the shape of a military drum with a deeper skirt for drawers. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Skinner photo)

This magnificent Federal period four-door breakfront by Baker is made of crotch cut mahogany veneer with satinwood inlay. It sold at auction for $3,250 in 2005. (LiveAuctioneers.com/S & S Auction photo)

In 1941, the company opened the Baker Museum for Furniture Research in Holland and provided a much-appreciated source of information on authentic furniture for researchers and collectors. In 1936, Colonial Williamsburg commissioned a line of reproductions to be made by Kittinger. When Kittinger was sold in 1991, Baker took over the Colonial Williamsburg license.

Thousands of American furniture manufacturers made and still make fine Colonial Revival furniture, but only a few made high-quality faithful reproductions. For more information about the Colonial Revival see, “Colonial Revival Furniture” by Lindquist and Warren, Wallace-Homestead. For more information about Baker furniture see “Fine Furniture Reproductions, 18th Century Revivals of the 1930s and 1940s,” published by Schiffer Publishing.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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  1. Harvey Utech says:

    I have several American reproduction pieces (Jefferson table, Hepplewhite desk, others) by Biggs Antique Company, now out of business for several decades. All their pieces were made out of “solid Honduras mahogany”. I believe they were headquartered in Richmond, VA. But they were not mentioned in this article.

    Are their reproductions considered worthy? I know their prices were much lower than Baket’s, presumably because of Baker’s Colonial Williamsburg imprimatur.

    How are Biggs’ reproductions regarded in the context of this article? Thanks for any help anyone can provide.

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Harvey – Biggs was one the best makers of Colonial Revival reproductions in the early 20th century. They were making high quality bench made reproductions in the 1910s to 1930s.

      They are mentioned in very favorable terms in the book “Colonial Revival Furniture” by David P. Lindquist/Caroline C. Warren, Wallace-Homestead and the book includes several pages of illustrations of Biggs pieces.

      Biggs produced a much lower volume than did Baker and is not as well known in the general market but the quality is generally better. Biggs was acquired by Kittinger about the time Kittinger got the original Williamsburg contract before Baker did.

      Fred Taylor
      Worthologist