Furniture Field Guide
f you think Queen Anne refers to an English monarch and a Chippendale is an exotic dancer, you obviously don’t spend much time thinking about furniture. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate what makes a Windsor chair a Windsor (and not, say, a Shaker), but this guide should get you started.
The Look: Wisconsinites should recognize this heavy oak furniture with rectangular forms. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged amateur attempts at furniture construction, so many of the pieces in antique malls were made by regular old folks with a few tools and some time on their hands. As a result, quality varies. Stickley is the Cadillac of Arts and Crafts furniture. It’s often the go-to brand for Madisonians with Arts and Crafts homes on the near-east and west sides of town as well as those in historically inspired developments like Middleton Hills. Craftsman furniture is an offshoot of the style.
The Look: It’s not a dancer, but an iconic chair. What began in 1762 by Thomas Chippendale in his book The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director has essentially evolved into the classic dining chair. Made of wood, most Chippendale and Chippendale-inspired chairs have upholstered seats, serpentine top rails and decorative back splats, which vary with period and region of construction. They can have arms, but most classic styles don’t. It’s a traditional chair that works well in more formal homes, such as colonials.
The Look: Various shades of modernism meet in International Style furniture, which brought home the marriage of industrial materials and production. Think molded woods and plastics, metal legs, glass tabletops. This furniture elevates design and style; many iconic pieces were conjured by architects. Charles and Ray Eames designed a lounge chair that interior designers, architects and other designers still love. Architect Eero Saarinen and Herman Miller designer George Nelson are other names to know.
Period: 1940 to present
The Look: In two words, Miami Beach. Imagine simple shapes with both restrained curves and clean angles along with veneers, inlays, lacquer and glass. Surfaces are smooth and materials often lavish.
The Look: Shaker furniture relies on simple, efficient design and craftsmanship. Slat-back chairs, some short enough to store beneath a table and others with tall ladder-backs, were made primarily for use during Shaker worship. (Shakers were members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. The movements of their ritual dances earned them their more common name.)
The Look: The most familiar Windsor application is seating. The thin spindle-back chairs and benches, sometimes with arms and sometimes without, are common choices for casual dining. Legs are turned. Rockers are popular, too.
Period: 1750 to present
The Look: Federalist was the first truly American furniture style. Adapted from the English designs that permeated the states, the new breed of furniture incorporated stars and eagles—uniquely American motifs—and relied on native cherry and, to a lesser degree, walnut wood in addition to the mahogany traditionally favored by fine furniture makers. Duncan Phyfe is perhaps the best-known furniture maker of the period, and his refined, restrained aesthetic is still evident in traditionally styled furniture today.
Period: 1720–1780 Sources for this story include Identifying American Furniture by Milo M. Naeve and Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary by Judith Miller.
Jennifer Garrett is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine. Photography courtesy of Century House, Woodworks & Philip Levy Interiors