There is a style of American furniture antiques that is consistently scorned by the upper crust of collectors and academics. Yet to its followers, the style is among the most innovative in history. It has retained enough popularity through the years that it has been constantly reproduced in almost every succeeding period of American furniture history.
The style features broad expanses of unadorned but exotic veneer. The cabinetwork is highlighted with sweeping scrolls and cyma curves, and descriptions of it often contain words like “clunky,” “bulky,” oversize” and “ugly.” Hardware and surface decoration are secondary to the style and have little influence on the overall look. Have you figured out what style I am talking about?
Sure you have. I am talking about mid-19th-century Empire furniture, the big white elephant of the retail antiques market. Right? Wrong. That stuff is not Empire even though 90 percent of it for sale is probably advertised and labeled as such.
The true “Empire” style was the second phase of the Classical era of the early 1800s. In America, the first phase was known as Neoclassicism and generally embraced the Federal styling of Sheraton and Hepplewhite, executed by such cabinetmakers as Samuel McIntire, Michael Allison and of course, Duncan Phyfe.
This is what a true period (1820) Empire bed looks like with paneled headboard and tall posts.
The second phase actually originated in Paris at the beginning of the century as the new style of the Napoleonic Empire and was introduced to America by French émigré cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier (pronounced LAN-u-way) around 1815.
The Empire style took a heavier approach than Neoclassicism and incorporated Roman and Greek architectural and mythological themes such as the female figures used as columns called caryatids. The style relied greatly on the carving and design skills of the individual craftsmen who constructed the furniture, and each piece was virtually a unique work.
This one-of-a-kind approach to styling and construction was ultimately the downfall of the style and the period. Not too many of us are personally familiar with artifacts of the Empire era unless we have seen them in museums or at auction because there just weren’t that many of them made.
What is commonly called “Empire” today is what came next after the demise of the true Empire style and again it had a French origin. After the fall of Napoleon came the Restoration period when the Bourbons were returned to the throne. One natural side effect of the change of rulers was a change of taste in furniture. And for once, a French monarchy leaned toward a plainer approach rather than a more elaborate one. Furniture of the French Restoration period, roughly 1818-1848, became conservative versions of late Empire. Very conservative.
This “Empire” chest is a Late Classicism model with none of the paw feet or acanthus carving of the true Empire period.
In America during the same period, especially in the 1830s, the trend was to larger, bulkier furniture with scroll supports and undecorated surfaces. This was almost a direct copy of what was happening in France in the earlier part of the period. But there was a difference in America. This was a growing and prosperous country after the two wars with England. The demand for new stylish furniture was easily outstripping the ability of small handcrafting shops to meet it, and the newer, plainer style from Europe had a large appeal.
The new style was initially referred to as, logically enough, “French Restauration,” even using the French spelling. The initial impact of the new style was in New York, naturally enough, and the firm that took the lead was the house of Joseph Meeks & Sons, which worked in New York from 1797 to 1869. They had a multistory factory on Broad Street and were equipped, both financially and emotionally, to embark on a new wave of style and manufacturing. The firm made history when it published a broadside in 1833 that depicted 41 pieces of furniture in the new style. This was the first publication in America of complete furniture designs.
This fold-over mahogany game table is from the 1840s. A very similar table was shown in the Joseph Meeks & Sons broadside of 1835. The correct name for the style is Late Classicism.
The appeal to customers was the unadorned simplicity of the new style combined with the newer, more impressive overall bulk of the cabinetry. After more than 30 years or so of fancy Sheraton and Neoclassical added to archeological Empire, the new plainer look was a clear relief. It had even more appeal to manufacturers like the Meeks. The Industrial Revolution was in full bloom, and the use of machinery had skyrocketed in the first quarter of the century. The second quarter was off to an even better start, and the new style was perfectly suited to the use of machinery.
The invention of the band saw in 1808 by Londoner William Newberry was one of the seminal events in the 19th-century manufacture of furniture, but it would take several decades after its introduction before it was improved to the point of commercial reliability. The arrival of the band saw and other powerful woodworking machinery coincided nicely with the shift away from handmade Empire furniture to the factory-made successor. The new kid on the block was a natural for band-saw application with its long sweeping curves and rounded scrolls.
This was the advent of what now is often, and usually erroneously, called Empire.
This 1840-ish bed is typically called an Empire sleigh bed, but it has none of the ormolu mounts or gilding of a true Empire sleigh bed. It has the smooth curvy look of Late Classicism.
Remember Empire was the second chapter of the Classical movement. The first was American Neoclassical (Federal). The third and last chapter of the Classical era is called “Late Classicism,” and while it is based loosely on Empire and classical designs, it is a unique style all to itself and represents the transition in American furniture-making from the handmade shop to the machine-driven factory in the 1830s.