Clive Payne

The Distinctive Features of 18th Century Furniture

The 18th century was a period of rich cultural evolution and artistic expression, marked significantly by its distinctive furniture styles. This era, often regarded as the golden age of furniture design, saw the emergence and flourishing of several stylistic movements, each contributing unique characteristics to the world of decorative arts. From the elegance of Queen Anne to the opulence of Rococo, and the refinement of Neoclassicism, 18th-century furniture encapsulated the tastes, technological advancements, and social aspirations of its time.


Queen Anne Style (1702-1714)

The early part of the 18th century was dominated by the Queen Anne style, named after the reigning monarch of England. Queen Anne furniture is celebrated for its graceful lines and understated elegance. The hallmark of this style is the cabriole leg, characterised by a gentle S-shaped curve which often terminates in a pad, trifid, or club foot. This period also saw the widespread use of walnut as the preferred wood, prized for its fine grain and rich colour.

Ornamentation in Queen Anne furniture was generally restrained. The use of veneers and inlays became more sophisticated, and the surfaces of tables, chairs, and cabinets were often decorated with intricate marquetry. The emphasis was on proportion and comfort, with chairs featuring high, hoop-shaped backs and cushioned seats. This style’s simplicity and elegance made it enduringly popular and influential in both Britain and its American colonies.


Rococo Style (1730-1760)

The Rococo style, which originated in France, brought a dramatic shift in the aesthetics of furniture design. Rococo, also known as the Louis XV style, is renowned for its exuberance, asymmetry, and ornamental richness. Furniture pieces from this period are often ornate, with intricate carvings and elaborate decorations.

The Rococo style favoured lighter woods such as oak, beech, and cherry, which were often gilded or painted. Chairs and settees featured sinuous lines, with cabriole legs, scrolled arms, and richly upholstered seats. Common motifs included shells, flowers, and acanthus leaves, reflecting the period’s fascination with natural forms. This style was less formal and more playful compared to its predecessors, emphasising comfort and luxury.

The commode, a type of chest of drawers, became a quintessential piece of Rococo furniture. These were often elaborately decorated with ormolu mounts, marquetry, and lacquered surfaces, showcasing the high level of craftsmanship and the luxurious taste of the time. Rococo’s influence extended beyond France, inspiring furniture designs across Europe.


Chippendale Style (1750-1780)

Thomas Chippendale, an English cabinetmaker, gave his name to one of the most iconic furniture styles of the 18th century. The Chippendale style is notable for its blend of Gothic, Chinese, and Rococo elements, reflecting the eclectic tastes of the period. Chippendale’s designs were published in his seminal work, “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director” (1754), which served as a comprehensive guide for craftsmen and patrons alike.

Chippendale furniture is characterised by its attention to detail and high-quality craftsmanship. The style often features elaborately carved legs and backs, with motifs such as latticework, fretwork, and scrolls. Mahogany became the wood of choice during this period, valued for its durability and ability to be finely carved.

Chairs in the Chippendale style often have intricate back splats, with pierced and carved designs. The “ribbon back” chair, featuring a backrest resembling intertwined ribbons, is a quintessential example. Chippendale cabinets and desks are equally ornate, frequently adorned with decorative brass hardware and elaborate inlays.


Hepplewhite Style (1765-1790)

The Hepplewhite style, named after the English cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite, emerged in the late 18th century, characterised by its elegance and lightness. Hepplewhite’s designs, published posthumously in “The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide” (1788), emphasised graceful lines and delicate proportions.

Hepplewhite furniture is distinct for its shield-shaped chair backs, tapered legs, and refined ornamentation. In contrast to the robust forms of earlier styles, Hepplewhite designs favoured a more slender and delicate aesthetic. Satinwood, mahogany, and painted finishes were commonly used, often with contrasting veneers and inlays.

The use of neoclassical motifs, such as urns, swags, and festoons, reflected the period’s admiration for classical antiquity. Hepplewhite furniture often featured inlay work with contrasting woods, creating subtle and sophisticated decorative effects. The style’s emphasis on refinement and grace made it highly popular among the English gentry and affluent American colonists.


Sheraton Style (1780-1820)

Following closely on the heels of Hepplewhite, the Sheraton style, named after the English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton, brought further refinement and elegance to 18th-century furniture design. Sheraton’s designs, outlined in his publication “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” (1791), were characterised by a focus on straight lines, symmetry, and classical proportions.

Sheraton furniture is often identified by its slender, rectilinear forms and use of light woods such as satinwood and tulipwood. The style favoured painted and inlaid decorations, with motifs inspired by Greek and Roman art. Typical features include tapered legs, reeded and fluted details, and delicate veneers.

Sheraton chairs are notable for their rectangular or square backs, often with splats featuring intricate patterns. The overall aesthetic is one of elegance and restraint, with a focus on functionality and comfort. Sheraton’s influence extended into the early 19th century, bridging the gap between the late 18th-century neoclassicism and the emerging Regency style.

The 18th century was a transformative period for furniture design, marked by a succession of distinct styles that each left an indelible mark on the decorative arts. From the graceful lines of Queen Anne to the exuberant ornamentation of Rococo, the eclectic Chippendale, and the refined elegance of Hepplewhite and Sheraton, each style reflected the cultural and aesthetic values of its time. These diverse yet interconnected styles collectively contributed to a rich legacy of craftsmanship and design, influencing furniture makers and collectors for centuries to come. The enduring appeal of 18th-century furniture lies in its combination of beauty, functionality, and historical significance, making it a cherished element of both antique collections and modern interiors.