Colonial Furniture: Style & Design

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

While the colonial period of furniture borrowed styles and designs from England, it took those styles and Americanized them. In doing so, unique styles were created based on construction techniques, decor, and even purpose.

Colonial Furniture

Colonial furniture designs came about in the decades shortly before, and in the decades following, the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. While styles were borrowed from England, after all, it was a colony, American craftsmen modified those styles to suit American design sensibilities. While colonial styles of designs can be broken down into three distinct periods, there would be some revolutionary designs that would live far beyond colonial America.

William and Mary

Influenced by Dutch craftsmen, the early designs of colonial furniture were modeled after English pieces. The design period of William and Mary saw a shift in how furniture design was approached. Before this, furniture design has been based on practicality. Clunky boxed shaped pieces that sat on the floor was common. However, as the colonies became more established the William and Mary style of furniture came into colonial designs. Furniture during this period was styled to be lighter both aesthetically and physically with the implementation of frame and panel construction.

William and Mary High Chest

Designs were also created to be more visually appealing in homes. Instead of using oak, pieces were constructed out of darker and richer looking walnut. There was a symmetrical element to the designs, so they were pleasing to the eye, with bulky legs being replaced by those with ball shapes that had been turned on a lathe so that they were thinner and even had ball shapes incorporated. Chairs were constructed with canted backs, where the back legs were deliberately cut longer and stylized to be decorative components on the chairs themselves. Instead of just straight back chairs, they might be slated, caned, or on even more expensive pieces upholstered. The high chest was a new style of furniture that emerged during this time, which were taller and sometimes narrower chest or drawers that sat on balled feet and were adorned with brass hardware.

Queen Anne

From William and Mary style colonial furniture, came Queen Anne. In a lot of stylistic elements, such as the elimination of bulky legs and the more decorative design elements. However, the legs of Queen Anne style furniture is stylistically very distinct. The legs are s-shaped, known as cabriole legs. These legs had a distinctive curve but otherwise did not have the ornamentation of clawed feet or other engravings. A Newport Queen Anne leg was more curvilinear but was in a more pointed rather than round foot. The backs of the chairs also took on a similar S-shaped curvature in their design. The splats were always solid in the back with no spindles and were shaped like a Grecian Urn.

Queen Anne Style Chair
queen anne 1

Japanning began with William and Mary style furniture, but it became more popular with the Queen Anne style. Asian influence is common in Queen Anne style colonial furniture, and Japanning was a very popular way to stylize it. It involves creating scenes on the faces of furniture, typically high chests, using a variety of techniques to create light and dark effects. The scenes themselves were raised and could be decorated with gold leaf.

Japanning on High Chest


The last era of colonial furniture designs is considered to be the Chippendale style of furniture. The higher end designs of Chippendale furniture were made from mahogany, while less expensive pieces were made from walnut or cherry wood. While Queen Anne furniture designs took elements from Japan, Chippendale borrowed from Chinese furniture. Namely, it's straight Marlborough legs that ended in a block foot. Like Queen Anne style furniture, some Chippendale pieces were still designed with cabriole legs and ball and claw feet.

Chippendale Chair
chippendale chair

Chairs, in particular, took on a different design with Chippendale pieces. While the legs were simpler, chair splats, in particular, went from being plain to intricate almost lace-like designs. The backs, like other designs in the colonial period, the seat backs took on a curve s-shape and some even used pointed arches at the top.

Windsor Chairs

One design of furniture that emerged from the colonial period and is still made to this day is the Windsor chair. The original design came from Windsor, England but historically, it is often associated with the founding fathers because Francis Tumble produced 100 in 1770 for the Philadelphia State House. They were practical, and not necessarily considered high-end furniture. They are easily recognizable because of the splayed legs, and the backs and sides made from thinned spindles.

Example Windsor Chair
windsor chair

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