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Federal Style Furniture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Furniture is more important than we sometimes give it credit for. In this lesson, we will talk about one of the most influential styles of furniture in American history and see what defined Federal furnishings.

Federal Furniture

What does it mean to be an American? There are many ways you could answer this, but you may include an optimistic spirit, a thirst for liberty, and a taste for oversized portions. Now, what does it mean to sit like an American? Yes, sit. That may seem like a weird question, but early in the nation's history it's a question somebody had to ask. When the United States was a new nation, there were many questions about what it meant to be American, and this extended into the arts, architecture, and even interior design. What did an American home look like? What were American styles of furniture? It took some debating, but one of the first answers was the Federal style. It was the first style that would become the seat of American national identity.

A room decorated in the Federal style
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History of the Federal Style

The Federal style of architecture and interior design became really popular in the United States between the 1780s and roughly 1820. But before that, it had its roots in Britain (as did many early American things). In the mid-18th century, Europe was becoming more and more fascinated with ancient Rome. The reason was pretty simple: archeological excavations in 1748 uncovered the buried city of Pompeii, giving people a glimpse into Roman life. Each nation of Europe handled this new fascination in a different way.

For the British, the revival in Roman interest was largely handled by architect Robert Adam. Adam toured Rome in the 1750s, then spent time observing how the rest of Europe was handling the budding neoclassical movement that revitalized the artistic forms of ancient Greece and Rome. He brought this back to England and developed a distinct form of neoclassicism now called the Adamesque. This style was very popular in England, but by that point the American colonists were starting to reject British ideas, so the Adamesque didn't really enter America until after the end of the American Revolution in 1783.

After this point, Americans started taking a major interest in the Adamesque. It wasn't because they were interested in modeling themselves off of Britain, it was because they wanted to model themselves on ancient Rome. In particular, the young American republic wanted to create a direct parallel between themselves and the last great republic of European history, the Roman Republic. American neoclassicism flourished as a way to encourage civic and national pride in the republic. Creating a civic society meant filling every aspect with reminders of this proud legacy, and so the Adamesque furnishings were adopted, altered, and translated into a distinct version of American neoclassical furniture perfect for the homes of patriotic republican citizens. This was the Federal style.

Characteristics of Federal Furniture

Most Roman monuments are made of stone, and even Pompeii preserved little in the way of useable furniture, so how does neoclassicism translate into interior furnishings? Federal furniture obeys the basic aesthetics of classical art and architecture, but with modern comforts in mind. Classical forms were defined by the rational use of geometric shapes, a strong devotion to symmetry, and a cool sense of ordered and logical design. Those elements were translated into the chairs, sofas, tables, and other furnishings of American homes.

A Federal style couch, with basic geometric shape and modeled vaguely on a Roman sarcophagus
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Federal furniture tends to emphasize basic geometric shapes, generally squares, circles, triangles, and rectangles. It is usually refined and well-crafted, with clean edges and straight lines. That's important, since the idea is to create something rational, cool, and contained. Additional features like tapered legs are also common as they may evoke the sense of a classical column.

Federal card table
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In terms of decorations, Federal furniture tends to be a little on the austere side, creating patterns through the use and treatment of the raw materials. Mahogany was a favored material, with pine being a viable alternative, often stained in contrasting patterns of light and dark veneers. Cushioning was often light blue or another soft color, generally without excessive designs.

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