William & Mary Style: Furniture & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

English furniture looked very similar for a long time. Then, it changed...a lot. In this lesson, we're going to examine William and Mary furniture and see why it looks so different from previous English styles.

William and Mary Furniture

There are some pretty big perks to being a monarch. You get to rule, people have to obey you, and you get to live in a palace (which you can hire other people to clean). Another perk that we don't often think about is defining the standards of fashion for your kingdom. It's true - monarchs set the tone for clothing, architecture, and even interior design that everyone in the country tries to emulate.

This may not seem like a huge deal, but just think about how much furniture you use on a daily basis. Furniture is a big part of our lives, and monarchs who really cared about furniture could have a serious impact on the daily comforts and lifestyles of their subjects. Don't believe us? Just ask the 17th-century British monarchs William and Mary. They've got an entire style of furniture named after them, and it was a style that influenced hundred of thousands of lives.

William, Mary, and the English Baroque

To understand the William and Mary style of British furniture, we need a little background on English styles and politics. Traditionally, English furniture had very strong medieval characteristics. It was massive, heavy, thick, blocky, and close to the ground. Basically, picture a medieval castle, with stone walls and a few furs for comfort. If a piece of furniture looks like it would fit in that environment, there's a good chance it came from this period in English history.

However, all of this changed in the late 17th century. At the time, King James II was on the throne. This was a problem for Parliament, because James II was Catholic. Parliament wanted him gone, so they reached out to his Protestant daughter, Mary. Mary had married a Dutch prince named William of Orange, and Parliament offered to give them the English throne if they kicked out James II. So they did. William and Mary marched into England, took the throne, and ruled jointly from 1689 to 1694.

So, what does all of this have to do with furniture? William came from the Netherlands, which had a booming middle class. Anxious to enjoy their wealth just as the aristocrats did, the middle class commissioned beautiful pieces of furniture for their homes. As a result, furniture making was a huge industry in the Netherlands. However, the predominant style was very different from the medieval English style. Dutch furniture was visually and physically lighter, smoother, and more versatile.

Traditional English furniture (left) was bulky and low to the ground. William and Mary furniture (right) was lighter and more separated from the ground.
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William brought Dutch furniture makers and Dutch tastes with him to England. How did the English feel about this? Pretty good, actually. England was just entering the Baroque period, which was characterized by regal, elegant, and extremely ornate forms of art and architecture. William and Mary's Dutch-influenced styles fit into the emerging Baroque aesthetic. So, the William and Mary style, also sometimes called the Early Baroque style, is best understood as a mixture of Dutch and English Baroque tastes and aesthetics.

Characteristics

That's an interesting history, but what does William and Mary furniture actually look like? This style was an absolute rejection of the blocky, visually heavy English furniture from before. Instead, William and Mary style furniture was visually light, smooth, elegant, and opulent.

The visual height of William and Mary furniture is very evident in chairs
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This aesthetic came from two defining features of the style. First was height. William and Mary furniture was slender and tall, a motif that's perhaps most evident in chairs of the time period. Even large pieces of furniture like cabinets were made to look light, resting on long, thin legs far above the ground. That's a big difference from previous English styles which all felt very grounded.

This change was made possible by a technique known as dovetailing. Basically, a dovetail joint is a tapered triangle or trapezoid, so it looks like the tail of a bird. Furniture makers could use this to create interlocking joints that were small but very strong, so dovetailing allowed for furniture that used thinner and lighter woods. This physical reduction of weight is what let William and Mary furniture become so much taller and emphasize vertical height in its design.

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