William & Mary Furniture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Furniture is a big part of our lives, and the styles of our furniture matter. In this lesson, we'll explore the William and Mary style, and see how changes in British politics led to changes in their ideas about furniture.

William and Mary Furniture

Once upon a time, there were two people named William and Mary. They bought some furniture, and it changed the world. The end.

When you tell someone you're studying furniture history, that's the sort of story they expect to hear. Furniture- who cares? So what? Ironically, people who say this often do so from the comforts of their couches, with their feet up on a desk, their coats on the back of a chair, and preparing to eat dinner at a table. Furniture matters in our lives, and there's a long history here. In the American and English traditions, our ideas about comfortable and fashionable furniture can be traced back to some very important changes in furniture design and styles. Amongst the first to really set the standards that would define English and American lives for generations was the style of William and Mary.

History of William and Mary Furniture

The story of William and Mary Furniture begins in the 17th century. In this time, a king named James II ruled England. However, James II was Roman Catholic and this didn't sit well with the predominantly Protestant English people. In what they called the Glorious Revolution, the people overthrew James II by inviting a Dutch prince to take the throne. That prince was William of Orange, who married James' daughter Mary and ruled the country with her from 1689-1694.

William and Mary changed many things about English society, including its taste in furniture. The fall of James II also meant the fall of the medieval furniture styles of England which were dark, heavy, thick, and blocky. Instead, William brought with him Dutch and Flemish furniture making traditions, which tended to emphasize lighter, versatile, and more comfortable forms. This was partly in keeping with mainstream artistic trends of Northern Europe (and yes, furniture styles followed the same trends that defined painting, music, and architecture).

English furniture before William and Mary tended to be blocky, heavy, and visually rooted to the ground

In this case, William's Dutch furniture entered England just as the Baroque era of art was reaching Britain. Baroque art and architecture was highly decorative, leaving no surface unadorned and is largely characterized by extreme opulence. At the same time, Baroque aesthetics flirted with the balance between seemingly weightless forms accented by light, and deeply serious and dramatic forms set with shadows. It was bold and dramatic, but decorative and playful at the same time.

Characteristics of William and Mary Furniture

The same trends that were impacted other forms of British art on the eve of the Glorious Revolution defined the nascent William and Mary style. In fact, many art historians simply refer to this as Early Baroque furniture. So, how can we identify it?

William and Mary furniture rejected the blocky right angles of Jacobean and Carolean furniture, instead favoring soft curves and elegant spirals. This also meant disposing of the visual and physical weight of former English styles. William and Mary furniture was physically lighter and thinner. Chairs, tables, desks, and chests of drawers were also raised higher off the ground to emphasize this.

William and Mary Furniture/Early Baroque furniture was often taller, lighter and visually disconnected from the ground

The thing that allowed for this transformation from heavy to lightweight furniture was the development of a technique known as dovetailing. Dovetail joints are tapered triangles or trapezoids, resembling a bird tail, to create interlocking joints that hold together with glue and friction. While the technique has technically existed for millennia, it didn't become a big part of English furniture until the William and Mary style. Dovetail joints changed the way that furniture makers could distribute weight, allowing their creations to be made of thinner wood, which was therefore lighter and could be built taller as well.

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