Sheraton Furniture: History, Style & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There are three names that dominate English 18th-century furniture, and one of them is Thomas Sheraton. In this lesson, we'll explore Sheraton's style and work and learn how to identify his designs.

Sheraton Furniture

There's a longstanding tradition of great artists dying penniless without their works being fully appreciated until years later. We often associate this with painters, but it happened to other artists as well, including sculptors, musicians, and even furniture makers.

Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) was an English furniture maker who wasn't quite penniless and wasn't totally unappreciated, but he still falls in the camp of artists whose works became priceless only after they died. Sheraton himself actually produced very little furniture in the last 20 years of his life, but he did inspire an entire generation of furniture makers to produce what we call the Sheraton style, popular from roughly 1790 to 1820. Today, it's considered one of the great achievements of England's golden age of furniture. If only Sheraton could have seen it.

Thomas Sheraton and Neoclassical Furniture

Thomas Sheraton was a cabinetmaker by trade, as well as a Baptist preacher in England. He was not tremendously wealthy, and even after his style caught on he still had to supplement his income by giving drawing lessons in London. So how'd his work become so popular? Unlike many furniture makers, it wasn't actually though the furniture he made, but through his books.

In 1791, Sheraton published the first book of a four-volume series entitled The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book. This guidebook to furniture became incredibly popular almost overnight (although again Sheraton did not become wealthy from it). The designs he presented spread across England and eventually over the United States as well, where they were embraced by furniture makers Duncan Phyfe, Samuel McIntire, and John and Thomas Seymour as part of the American Federal style. Sheraton rarely made any of these designs himself - in fact, some historians believe he never did at all.

Sheraton's style in this series, as well as the other books he published, was a take on Neoclassical furniture, popular in that time period. Neoclassical furniture rejected the ornate and elaborate look of previous styles in exchange for something simpler, more refined, and more straightforward. Like other Neoclassical arts, Neoclassical furniture was based on the revival of Greek and Roman aesthetics, including mathematical harmony and the celebration of unadorned geometry.

A Sheraton sofa; note the architectural and geometrical feel balanced with the thin legs and elegance
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Characteristics of Sheraton Furniture

So, what defines Sheraton-style furniture from other Neoclassical styles likes the Chippendale or Hepplewhite (named for other prominent furniture makers)? In overall terms, Sheraton furniture embraces Neoclassical simplicity, but with a notably lighter and more elegant feel than the sturdier styles. This may have been a result of French influence on Sheraton's designs. Regardless of where it came from, legs in Sheraton furniture tend to be thinner and the entire piece often feels visually lighter.

Sheraton furniture also obeys Neoclassical devotion to simple geometry, and particularly rectilinear forms. Chair and sofa backs are generally rectangular in shape, while cabinets and dressers have strong, nearly architectural rectilinear features. To show this, Sheraton often left the frame visible in chairs and sofas, rather than hiding it all under upholstery as other neoclassical furniture makers did.

Sheraton furniture generally emphasizes rectilinear shapes and lines
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This architectural quality of the Sheraton style, common in most Neoclassical furniture, is emphasized by the legs, which (while thin) tend to be straight, rounded and fluted like the columns of a Greek temple. Some are tapered, and back legs are occasionally splayed. Most end in simple, unadorned feet.

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