Something We Can All Agree On: the Beauty of Philadelphia Chippendale Furniture

Talking about politics too much makes you ugly, so I like to follow along with a a certain level of detachment. Too many people want to yell about what they believe and aren’t willing to listen to the other side, or even assume the best intentions from people who disagree with them. I prefer a softer approach: I try to listen to both sides fairly, form my opinions, and then keep them to myself. When things get too ugly, I unplug and turn to something beautiful as a palate cleanser.

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, expresses the rococo ideals of lightness, playfulness, and femininity.

In the spirit of this week’s Democratic National Convention, I wanted to discuss Philadelphia furniture in the colonial period (and, in all fairness, I would have written about Cleveland furniture during the RNC, if only Cleveland had made any notable contributions to decorative arts, bless its heart). I’ve always been interested in the difference between furniture styles in colonial cities–in what makes a Philadelphia chair so…Philadelphia.

In New York, where there was a large population of British loyalists and there were many British immigrants to interpret the latest London trends, the furniture and decorative arts have a distinctly English feel. In New England, where there were fewer immigrant cabinetmakers, carvers, and engravers, local craftsmen focused more on the form of pieces than the decoration. In Philadelphia, a uniquely American rococo style emerged when craftsmen took New England furniture forms and added fashionable embellishments in the latest Chippendale styles.

Philadelphia Tea Table

Philadelphia Tea Table in mahogany, 1765-75, attributed to Hercules Courtenay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tea tables in Philadelphia were usually round, often with tops that tilted to the side and a tripod stand. The piece above has a scalloped top and reeded stand that expresses weight and tension through the sturdy legs and the compressed ring on the pillar, which give the impression of that they are bearing weight from the top of the table. This is a uniquely Philadelphia feature.

Philadelphia Game Table

The Francis-Fisher-Coxe Chippendale carved mahogany card table, circa 1760.

Like many Philadelphia flip top game tables, the Francis-Fisher-Coxe table has cabriole legs, and less carved ornament than contemporary chairs or case furniture. The apron and skirt appear to be the joint work of a cabinet maker and joiner, and the distinctly separated areas are a uniquely American feature. The piece has a serpentine shaped apron with a light decoration of a central cobochon and carved acanthus leaves at the knees. The ball and claw feet have a compressed ball, as if bearing weight, in the Philadelphia style.

Philadelphia High Chest of Drawers

Philadelphia high chest of drawers in mahogany, pine, and poplar, circa 1780. De Young Museum.

The iconic Philadelphia high chest of drawers took a uniquely American style case piece and added elegant contemporary rococo decoration. The signature detail on the Philadelphia high chest of drawers is the dramatic central finial, set above the highly figured carving on the tympanum. The piece has a a broken pediment, with flame finials to either side, and reticulated batwing bail pulls on each drawer. Carving near the serpentine shaped apron reflects that on the tympanum, and the knees are covered in carved decoration and terminate in compressed claw and ball feet.

These and other beautiful examples of colonial furniture emerged at a point in our history during which loyalists and patriots were fiercely divided. Trouble was brewing in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charleston, and it would ultimately boil over into the American Revolution, but not before there were non-importation acts on goods and materials from England that ultimately shaped the furniture and decorative arts of the period. These pieces are a product of their unique point in history, and understanding their story is understanding our American story.

Be sweet to each other, friends, and seek out the beautiful, even where there’s discord!