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Hepplewhite Style Furniture


Rhode Island Hepplewhite mahogany shield-back chair. For more info: www.equinoxantiques.com

An American Hepplewhite shield-back chair, ca. 1795-1805

Courtesy of Mark Reinfurt - Equinox Antiques & Fine Art at www.equinoxantiques.com

Background on Hepplewhite style:

Named after London designer and cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite (?-1768), whose The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide was published posthumously in 1788, Hepplewhite furniture dates from about 1780-1810. It is a neoclassic style and falls within the Federal period in the U.S.

Hepplewhite style often overlaps with that of British designer Thomas Sheraton, whose 1791 guidebook, like Hepplewhite's, documented the designs of the day. However, the slightly older Hepplewhite style tends to be more ornate, with substantial carving and curvilinear shapes. Considered "city furniture," Hepplewhite was especially popular in American states along the Eastern Seaboard, from New England to the Carolinas.

Hepplewhite Style Legs:

In contrast to the popular cabriole legs of earlier styles, such as Queen Anne, Hepplewhite pieces usually have straight legs. These can be square or tapered, and often have reeded or fluted edges, in imitation of Classical columns. Some chairs and sofas have H-stretchers, reinforcing pieces of wood that connect the legs to form the shape of an H.

Hepplewhite Style Feet:

Complementing the plain, straight legs of a chair or table, Hepplewhite-style feet are usually simple: a rectangular spade foot or a tapered arrow foot. Bracket feet are common on heavier pieces, such as chests, desks and bookcases.

Woods Used in Hepplewhite Style Pieces:

Because Hepplewhite furniture is characterized by contrasting veneers and inlays, pieces often contain more than one type of wood. For the base, mahogany was the wood of choice, but satinwood and maple were also popular. Other woods include sycamore (especially common for veneers), tulipwood, birch and rosewood. Since craftsmen frequently used the local woods at hand, American versions of Hepplewhite's designs can be made of ash or pine as well.

Other Hepplewhite Style Features:

  • Hepplewhite is known for its graceful, delicate appearance, especially light compared to earlier Queen Anne and Chippendale styles.
  • Pieces are embellished with small carvings or painted designs, along with intricate inlaid patterns and veneers, often in contrastingly colored woods.
  • Common motifs include swags, ribbons, feathers, urns and trees.
  • Pieces have simple geometric shapes, usually curved or circular. Sofa and chair arms curve outward, seats have rounded fronts and chair backs are shaped like ovals or shields. The shield-back chair (see photo above) is perhaps the best-known of all Hepplewhite styles.
  • Hepplewhite is credited with popularizing the sideboard and the short chest of drawers, both new forms of furniture in his day, according to American Furniture: 1620 to the Present, by Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bidwell Bates. His designs for these pieces typically feature serpentine or bow-shaped fronts (click on More Images above to see photo).

Later Hepplewhite Styles:

British furniture manufacturers began reviving Hepplewhite designs in the 1880s. Though they are themselves antiques now, the construction is not as solid and the decoration is not as finely detailed in these mass-produced reproductions.

The Kittinger Furniture Company of Buffalo, New York became known for its faithful Hepplewhite reproductions in the 1920s and 1930s as well. Made of high-quality woods, some of these pieces have become collectibles in their own right.

In a sense, Hepplewhite furniture has never gone out of style. Features such as the shield back, fluted legs and the serpentine front remain standard in traditional furniture design.

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