Federal furniture: One of the most elegant American furniture styles

Mahogany chairs in the Hepplewhite style made circa 1790

Federal style furniture is the furniture produced in the Federal period, which began after the United States gained independence and continued until 1820. In the early decades, the new country was still defining its government and traditions so the term ‘federal’ refers specifically to the period after the Revolutionary War.

The Federal furniture style is known as such only in America. Outside of its borders, it is known as neoclassical, since it shares very similar characteristics with European neoclassical furniture. The name ‘Federal’ remained due to the period in which it was popular, but the furniture has British origins.

The Scottish architect and furniture designer Robert Adam traveled trough Europe when the scientific exploration of the ancient site of Pompeii began in 1748. He was particularly interested in the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which influenced the development of British neoclassicism. In 1773, he wrote The Works in Architecture, one of the most celebrated books on architectural history. By doing so, Adam introduced Neoclassical style, in architecture as well as in design, in Britain and abroad.

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The spread of the new style also helped the publications of Robert Adam’s The Ruins of the Palace of Diocletian (1764), George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793), and Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book. Robert Adam’s work abandoned the existing heavily carved, ornate aesthetic and replaced them with delicately painted ornaments. Neoclassical designs were inspired by the Greeks and Romans.

Sitting room furnished with federal furniture, Winterthur Museum, New Castle County, Delaware, U.S. Author: Daderot. CC0

Neoclassicism arrived in the new country with the English immigrants, and with the expansion of the famous books. Soon after, the Americans started showing interest in the new style and Neoclassicism became popular. The American Neoclassical or Federal style, although similar, had some small differences that varied from town to town.

Left: Barack Obama in the green room next to a striped D. Phyfe sofa. Right: Another sofa, ca. 1810-15. Attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe.

Federal furniture was generally sought and manufactured in the large cities and port towns, where a lot of wealthy people who still had connections with Europe lived. This furniture was spread along the Eastern coast of America, with particular concentrations in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Charleston, SC. Today, the furniture and a broad range of decorative items from the Federal period are preserved and displayed in museums and houses in these areas.

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Giant chair, left Thomasville and right Washington DC. The original chair was the creation of Duncan Phyfe

One of the most famous American designers of Federal furniture was Duncan Phyfe, whose work was based on the Sheraton style. His furniture was made from mahogany, and among his notable works are game tables with flip tops and chairs featuring concave backs and legs, decorated with classical designs. Other American designers of the Federal era are Charles Honore Lannuier, Michael Allison, John Dolan, John Shaw, George Woodruff, and Samuel McIntire.

Sofa Table (Sheraton)

Sheraton style is characterized by simple but strong and proportioned geometric shapes made of mahogany. For his chairs, Sheraton preferred square or rectangular forms with a square-shaped back. The legs on his pieces are straight, sometimes tapered, have a traditional round shape and reeded edges, modeled after Classical columns. His typical and most famous piece of furniture is probably the square-back sofa with exposed arms and reeded legs.

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Mahogany chairs in the Hepplewhite style made circa 1790

Most of Hepplewhite’s furniture, such as small tables, chairs, and writing desks, are crafted of mahogany in simple geometric shapes, usually curved or circular.  His most famous work is probably the shield-back chair. His pieces usually have straight legs, square or tapered, that also have reeded edges, imitating the Classical columns of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The decorative elements involved feathers, Classical urns, and curling ribbons.

Triple settee (1775), carved wood, upholstered, Hepplewhite style with three shield-shaped backs, collection Gill et Reigate, London (in 1922).

In manufacturing Hepplewhite’s furniture in America, more than one type of wood was used. Mahogany was the favorite most of the time, but satinwood, sycamore, and maple were also popular. The federal style furniture is enduring and classic, as well as very adaptable to many interior designs. It is one of the most elegant American furniture types to ever to be produced and continues to influence modern furniture designers.