Furniture Style and Form: What’s Wrong With a ‘Period’ Coffee Table?
While this may look like an antique mid-19th-century Rococo Revival coffee table, it is a mid-20th-century fabrication using elements of the Rococo Revival style.
In the world of antique furniture, the word “period” has a very specific meaning. To say that something is period means that it is from the time when the style of the piece was first popular.
For example, to say a Queen Anne chair is “period” means that it came from the first half of the 18th century when the Queen Anne style was introduced and was the most used style of the era. Likewise a period Chippendale chair is from the third or fourth quarter of the 18th century.
All of this was pretty straightforward to furniture folks in previous times. A Queen Anne chair was very old, a Chippendale chair not quite so much, and an Empire piece was new. No problem.
Then came the great American leveler, the Colonial Revival. The idea was to honor our country and our Founding Fathers by reproducing types of furniture used in their time.
Naturally, the project was doomed to go awry once it got to the commercial stage. As long as it remained in the older, small, bench-made type cabinet shops, the styles and forms remained true to the grand idea. But when it reached the factory level in the early 20th century, more items were made where the. It would have made George W. and the boys blush.
And now, nearly 100 years later, some of the early Colonial Revival pieces are starting to look pretty old and could be very confusing to collectors new to the antique furniture market.
An example of this recently came to me from a reader. He had a buffet that his refinisher had told him was truly antique, probably from the 18th century, and he had seen others like it sell for $5,000. Unfortunately the buffet was Queen Anne–style with cabriole legs and pad feet.
This late 19th-century Empire Revival rocker is called an Empire chair even though it is not of the period. (Image: LiveAuctioneers.com/Grand View Antiques and Auction)
What’s wrong with that? With rare exceptions, the form of the low sideboard with drawers and doors did not exist in the Queen Anne period. It came into being in the late 18th century in the Adam style and those designed by Hepplewhite and Sheraton in the Federal period. It was never made in the Queen Anne style until the 20th century.
The $5,000 antique buffet turned out to be a $150 Depression-era sideboard.
There are a number of other examples where, no matter how old they may appear, items are not period and are not antique because the form did not exist in the original period.
A prime culprit in this category is the coffee table. How many Chippendale, Queen Anne or Rococo Revival coffee tables have you seen? A great many probably, but none of them are period or even antique.
The form of the low coffee table did not exist in any of those periods. It is a 20th-century form, and classical-style coffee tables are not even reproductions because no original ever existed. They are modern tables made using classical stylistic elements and most have little or no collectors’ or antique value.
On a side note, you may ask yourself, “So, where did the style we know as “coffee table” come from?”
One source in Grand Rapids claims credit. In 1903, F. Stuart Foote founded the Imperial Furniture Company in Grand Rapids. He learned the furniture business from his father E. H. Foote, who founded the Grand Rapids Chair Company in 1872.
Early in the history of the company, according to “Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City” by Christian Carron, Foote claimed to have invented the coffee table himself while helping his wife prepare for a party. He simply lowered the legs on an existing table and the new form was born fully developed.
So there you have it. Maybe.
Read: ‘Grand Rapids Furniture: Is it Always Grand?’
Another source cites the making of low coffee tables in Revival styles in the late 19th century but gives no examples or illustrations. In their somewhat light-hearted approach to the history of the subject, authors Alexander Payne and James Zemaitis, in “The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book,” come to the conclusion that the coffee table is a 20th-century invention.
This may look like an antique late 19th-century Eastlake coffee table, it is actually a parlor table that has been cut down to modern coffee-table height.
They use the French “table bas”—a low table that was placed around the perimeter of a room rather than in the center—as the basis. They state that in 1915 fashion magazines started showing the tables in the middle of the room and the concept literally flew across continents and borders to become routine in American households.
But getting back to the main point of this article, another example of furniture forms not appearing in their respective periods is the Empire rocking chair. While the rocking chair did exist in the Empire period, it was not a style that lent itself to the mobility requirements of the form.
Even more common is the Chippendale rocking chair with ball-and-claw feet. Again the rocking chair form did exist in the Chippendale period, it just was never made in the style. And forget about the possibility of a rocking chair being an original Queen Anne chair.
Then there is the case of the antique china cabinet from grandma’s house. The large bulb turnings on the legs of the cabinet identify it as a Jacobean-style cabinet. The style is named for King James I of the early 17th century. The Latin term for James is Jacob. It was popular in the American colonies in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But in the 17th century there were no glass front cabinets. This and all the other examples are purely 20th-century fabrications.
So keep this all in mind when you’re told that a particular piece is “period.” It can save a lot of heartache and money in the end.
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