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American Empire Furniture: Style & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Can furniture styles really reflect geopolitical attitudes? As it turns out, yes. In this lesson, we'll look at the American Empire style of furniture and see how a good chair can capture an entire nation's attitudes about their future.

The French Empire, American Republic, and Chairs

Chances are, you're sitting down as you read this. Take a look at the chair you're using. What's it say about your culture's values, ideologies, and economic status in the world? Yes, this may seem like an odd question, but believe it or not, furniture matters. National tastes in furniture can tell us a lot about people.

For instance, American furniture and architecture have long reflected a distinct neoclassicism, which means it's a revival of ancient Greek and Roman forms. Why? Because the country's founding figures saw the USA as the ideological offspring of the Roman Republic. However, the ways we've presented those neoclassical motifs change with time. From roughly 1815 though the 1830s, one of those changes was actually thanks to the French Empire. In the United States, this furniture reflected some distinct attitudes about the republic. We call it the American Empire style.

History

In the early 19th century, Napoleon rose to power in the chaos of the French Revolution. France too was a republic, and Napoleon started embracing all things Roman as well. In fact, he really followed Roman precedent by having himself named consul for life (the title Julius Caesar adopted) and then emperor (the title of Caesar Augustus). France was an empire again, and Napoleon's tastes reflected this, now embracing motifs of the Roman Empire, which is why there's a giant triumphal arch in the middle of Paris.

The klismos-style chair, directly modeled on ancient Greek styles, was one of the most important forms of the Empire style
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This was the French Empire style. In architecture, it resulted in large and imperial structures, and in furniture, it resulted in regal pieces that communicated both strength and wealth. These are really the two defining traits of Empire furniture.

So, how'd this French imperial style end up in the United States? America adopted a strong pro-French attitude as tensions between the USA and Great Britain grew, resulting in the War of 1812. A French cabinetmaker, Charles Honoré Lannuier introduced the French Empire style to New York, and it grew to be more popular than competing British styles. In the 1820s and 1830s, it was maintained by Scottish immigrant Duncan Phyfe, one of America's most influential furniture makers.

American Empire couch, modeled on Roman reclining beds
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After the War of 1812 ended, the United States entered into a period of rapid growth, relative peace, and prosperity. This was the period of the American Industrial Revolution, the rise of American dominance over the Western Hemisphere, and the first real push into the West. For Napoleon, the Empire style had communicated the strength and wealth of the empire, but for Americans it represented the stability and prosperity of a republic, which they felt was coming of age. Of course, we can't ignore America's own imperial ambitions in this early era of westward expansion; this is also the same time Congress and Jackson decided to forcibly remove all Amerindian tribes from east of the Mississippi, setting up the Trail of Tears.

Characteristics of American Empire Furniture

Okay, that's a lot of history, which introduced some pretty complex political, economic, and social themes. How do you incorporate all of that into a chair? The key to understanding American Empire furniture is to look for three things:

  1. Prominent Greek and Roman motifs
  2. Heavy visual weight to communicate strength and stability
  3. Lots of ornamentation to communicate prosperity

Let's take a deeper look at the ideas of strength and prosperity in furniture. Before this new style, American furniture was highly inspired by British trends, which encouraged light, thin and elegant forms. By contrast, the American Empire style was bulky and large, but not obtuse or obstructive. Furniture was made to feel heavy and grounded, and almost architectural. This was partly achieved by using classical proportions of Greek and Roman architecture in furniture design, as well as by modeling legs and backs after architectural features like columns. Thick pedestals were also incorporated into many pieces of furniture.

Column-like legs and other architectural features helped add visual wieght
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