NEW YORK — A small but elegant exhibit tucked amid the American period rooms on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores the little-known story behind Chippendale furniture, and how one young man's bold idea to create a detailed manifesto about chairs and tables for the British elite transformed his name into an enduring style.
"Chippendale's Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker" reveals how Thomas Chippendale, an 18th century artisan of humble origins, came up with a new way of designing, marketing and producing furniture. The exhibit, featuring furniture, drawings and other objects, remains on view at the Met through Jan. 27.
Chippendale's pieces were created at the height of the Rococo period and were a British appropriation of a style imported from France, then known simply as "style moderne," says Alyce Englund, assistant curator in the Met's American Wing. She organized the exhibit with Femke Speelberg, associate curator of drawings and prints.
Other Chippendale pieces featured an Asian-inspired "chinoiserie" style, often in the form of tea stands and other tea-related furnishings popular in Britain at the time. Still other Chippendale works were in a Gothic revival or neoclassical style.
The overall look was meant to be both sophisticated and elitist, boasting adherence to Greek and Roman principals of design while featuring decorative elements so complex and upholstery so expensive that the pieces would be inaccessible to more humble classes.
Common features included chair backs pierced in an interlaced design, often using abstract leaf motifs or swirling ribbons, with the uppermost corners of the chair backs tending to project upward in a variety of fashions. Designs often included intricate fretwork for shelves and chair legs, and decorative feet, sometimes featuring a hairy lion's-paw design.
A skilled draftsman, Chippendale owed much of his fame to his publication of an enormous and detailed book of engravings called "The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director." A typical copy of the Director was 18.5-by-12 inches and weighed over 8 pounds. Its first edition featured 160 of Chippendale's lovingly rendered drawings of furniture designs, from which clients around England and its colonies were invited to order. Later editions featured still more of his detailed drawings.
The front pages of the ambitious work announced that it would edify (including "a short explanation of the five orders of architecture") and instruct, (including "proper directions for executing the most difficult pieces, the mouldings being exhibited at large and the dimensions of each design specified.")
Chippendale invited independent furniture makers to use his designs for their own creations, advising only that complex decorative elements be simplified if they surpassed the skills of the furniture maker.
"Hundreds of copies of the book were printed and sent all over Britain and the colonies. It went viral," Englund says.
In America, many in the aspiring mercantile class sought to fill their homes with furnishings in the latest fashion. And in many cases, the elaborately designed Chippendale furniture was not produced by his company in Britain but in the United States, by a wave of immigrant furniture-makers who had just arrived from Britain themselves, some bringing Chippendale's designs with them.
Eventually, much of the 18th century home furniture in the United States was thought of as "Chippendale," the name coming to describe decorative furnishings of this sort.
"Over time, Chippendale came to represent American fortitude and reverence for tradition," Englund says.
When styles later changed and a preference for a streamlined, casual lifestyle took hold, the Chippendale name "became a scapegoat for fussy traditionalism," she says.
"I think as long as Chippendale was popular there was an opposing crowd," Englund says.
Designers as early as the 18th century made fun of Chippendale's most famous decorative features, referring to them in their works — for instance, in streamlined chairs with the most minimalist of pierced chair backs, a playful reference to what by then were simply thought of as "traditional" chairs.
By the 1970s, even a famous group of erotic male dancers with a trademark "classy" look took on the name "Chippendales," a reference to "the classic Chippendales-style furniture that adorned the club where the guys first performed," according to the group's
The furniture business founded by Thomas Chippendale went out of business in 1804. The elite clients to whom he catered frequently failed to pay up, Englund explains, and the debts he'd incurred — in part to produce and distribute his influential Director — came due.
But furniture makers continued to adeptly produce his designs locally, and his name continued to spread, thanks to his detailed and inspiring drawings.
Katherine Roth, The Associated Press