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American Antique Weather Vanes
by A. B. & W. T. Westervelt

The weather vane found a welcome home in the expanding America of the 18th and 19th centuries. It served an important function, but also had humorous and homespun motifs, bold and vigorous design, and spirited air of American individualism and independence.
                                   
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Have a Seat
by Bob Brooke
 

 

“Have a seat.” That’s a common expression today. But back in the 15th century, that honor, at least in a formal chair was relegated to royalty and the higher clergy. At that time, important people----kings, queens, government officials, and bishops and cardinals—got to sit in comfort in a heavy chair or throne. Everyone else sat on stools or benches.

People take chairs for granted today. They appear everywhere in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and comfort levels. However, it took centuries for chairs to evolve into the ubiquitous seating of today.

For centuries, chairs were articles of state and dignity rather than an article of ordinary use. The chest, the bench and the stool were until then the ordinary seats used in everyday living.

Rulers and ecclesiastics used chairs as a seat of authority. A chair stood at the head of the lord’s table, on his dais, and by the side of his bed. This usually had a high back, sometimes had a canopy, and a front and sides enclosed with paneled or carved wood. The seat was often hinged and locked with a key.

During the Renaissance in Europe, chairs ceased to be a privilege of state, and became customary for those who could afford them. Almost at once, chairs began to reflect the fashion trends of the day.

One example is the “conversation chair,” designed for men wearing expensive laced coats in the 18th century. A gentleman could then sit with his face to the back, his valuable tails hanging unimpeded over the front.

Side chairs and armchairs, which were really side chairs with wood arms attached, offered little choice when it came to comfort. In addition to solid-backs, there were slat-back chairs, which had three or more wide and usually shaped wooden pieces horizontally across the back. The banister-back chair had fairly wide vertical slats surmounted by a crest or top rail. Chairmakers richly carved some of these top rails, as well as the banisters.

Until the middle of the 17th century, chairmakers constructed chairs of oak without upholstery. Later, they made leather cushions for the seats to make them more comfortable. Eventually, they began covering the seat cushions with velvet and silk.
Nearly all 17th-century chairs were massive and solid, and thus of considerable weight.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the Louis XIII chairs with cane backs and seats that chairmakers were able to make them less cumbersome. French chairmakers went on to create the bergere chair, a high-fashion chair made of walnut that became popular among the nobility.

Meanwhile, the English chairmakers across the Channel had no time for frivolous and exotic designs. This was especially the case up until the end of the Tudor Period, after which France began to set her mark upon the British chair. The squat chair, with its heavy back, carved like a piece of paneling, gave way to a taller, more slender, and more elegant form, in which chairmakers carved only the framework.

The latter part of the 17th Century, technically known as the Restoration Period in England, brought forth lighter and more adaptable chairs. Special turnings, scrolled and more elaborate stretchers, became fashionable. Decorations expanded to include lacquer, marquetry, and some inlay.

Chairmakers of the Restoration especially focused on the chair stretcher. From a mere cross-bar intended to strengthen the construction, the stretcher blossomed into an elaborate scroll-work or a graceful semicircular ornament connecting all four legs, with a vase-shaped knob in the center.

They also added scrolls and spirals to the arms and legs, as well as to a chair’s back splat. Popularized in England by the cavaliers who had been in exile with Charles II, these forms degenerated into something much stiffer and more rectangular, with a solid, more or less fiddle-shaped splat and a cabriole leg with pad feet during the reign of William and Mary. The more ornate chairs had cane seats and ill-proportioned cane backs.

Thomas Chippendale studied these forms when he created his now famous Chippendale chair, with its elaborately interlaced back, its graceful arms and square or cabriole legs, the latter terminating in the ball and claw or padded foot. George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton and Robert Adam all aimed at lightening the chair, which, even in the master hands of Thomas Chippendale, remained comparatively heavy. They succeeded and gave modern chairs a much lighter design.

The wing chair appeared before 1700. It was probably the first comfortable chair and certainly the first upholstered one. The wings attached to the frame of the back served the same purpose as hangings on a bed—they cut off drafts. Earlier, settees had been no more than wooden benches with arms and backs. Between 1660 and 1690, sofas began to appear with covered arms and backs.

But times and fashions changed. Informal manners and a new half-reclining posture replaced the former bolt-upright demeanor of court and aristocracy in the age of Louis XIV. Chairmakers responded with new commodious seat furniture, developed in Paris around 1720. They upholstered these new Rococo chairs by building removable frames that could be secured by clips, so that servants could change them easily from winter to summer use. Servants stored the off-season upholstered frames in the Crown Furniture Repository in the Hotel du Garde Meuble. These early Louis XV chairs have backs upholstered, with the back in a flat panel that was ordinarily placed squared to the wall, so that the top-rails' curves complemented those of the carved wood panels behind them.

French fashions in chairs radiated from Paris. From the late 1720s, chairmakers constructed fashionable Louis XV French chairs without stretchers, which interfered with the unified flow of curved seatrails into cabriole legs that generally ended in scroll feet. According to strict guild regulations in force until the Revolution, French chairmaking was the business of the joiner, whose craft was often combined with that of the upholsterer, both of whom specialized in seat-furniture-making.

Joiners developed a variety of specialized seats and gave them fanciful names, of which the comfortable bergère or "shepherdess" is the most well known. They used beechwood, painted with clear light tones that matched those used on a room’s wall paneling, or gilded them. If joiners used a natural finish, they chose walnut. Outside of Paris, joiners used fruitwoods for chairmaking.

By the late 1760s in Paris, joiners began making the first Parisian neoclassical chairs, even before the accession of Louis XVI, whose name became associated with this style. Straight tapering fluted legs joined by a block at the seat rail and architectural moldings, characterize the style, in which each element is a discrete entity. Three of the leading French chairmakers from the 1770s to the 1780s were Louis Delanois, Jean-Claude Sené and Georges Jacob.

Most historians agree that the 18th century was the golden age of the chair, especially in France, England, and Colonial America. Chairmakers from all three locations exchanged ideas. The period reached its stylistic peak in the typical Louis XVI chair, with its oval back and ample seat, descending arms and round-reeded legs, and upholstered in a tapestry woven with Boucher or Watteau-like scenes. The Empire also had some squat chairs, which though comfortable enough, showed no inspiration.

A radically different style of chair appeared during the Queen Anne period that was called the corner or roundabout chair. This had a low back that encircled two sides of the seat, the latter placed diagonally so that it formed a right-angled corner. All chairs had a softly curving structure, for they were shaped to fit the body. Side chairs and wooden armchairs often had a high, shaped back with one wide, vase-shaped splat.

Simple rocking chairs began appearing in America in the early part of the 18th century. However, the production of wicker rocking chairs didn’t reach its peak until the mid 18th century.

The 19th century brought with it a variety of furniture revival styles. During the Victorian Era, there were no less than seven major furniture styles, many of which overlapped. Furniture suites began to appear in the latter part of the century, each with chairs to match. Several of these styles reflected some of the periods above, including Rococo and Renaissance Revival.

But by the end of the 19th century, furniture makers looked to the simpler styles of the 20th century to counteract the overly decorated ones of the Victorian Era. The Art Nouveau style produced beautiful chairs influenced by the forms of nature while the Arts and Crafts Movement produced heavy, straight-lined chairs devoid of ornamentation.


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