In this blog, we will be covering the general development of chairs in Britain in the past three centuries, breaking it down by era (Georgian, Victorian and 20th Century). By ‘general development’, we mean how it looked, some uses for it, and how common they were.
We will begin with the Georgian era, during which time the furniture was not machine-cut, meaning that imperfections in the joinery and overall structure were commonplace. However, we feel that there is a remarkable charm to this. Moreover, most pieces will have been oak, or oak and something else. Although, later in the period, walnut and mahogany (imported from British colonies) became increasingly popular to the point of being nearly as common as oak. However, these were usually owned by the entrepreneurial or upper classes, given the costs of importing materials. This also meant that these would usually be more decorative than their oak counterparts, as they could afford the more renowned designers’ works. Speaking of which, some of the premier designers of the time were Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite. Whilst they did not work exclusively in designing chairs, their work in this area was greatly influential. A Hepplewhite or Chippendale chair today is worth significantly more than a similar chair not made by them.
A Chippendale chair is highly intricate in its design, putting him at the forefront of furniture makers. So much so that he was one of the first designers to have his style attributed to him and not the monarch. Meaning, antique furniture is usually referred to as ‘Georgian’ or ‘Victorian’, for example, but ‘Chippendale’ is used as a descriptor instead of Georgian, although made within the Georgian reign. Similarly, Hepplewhite chairs and furniture would also receive this distinction, with his chair designs being instantly recognisable for the ‘shield back that they typically had. However, these would have likely been ‘Hepplewhite-style’ as Hepplewhite did not receive acclaim for his designs until after his death (with his widow Alice publishing a book of his designs called ‘The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide’ in 1788). Another thing to note at this time is that not every piece was upholstered, another indicator of the financial status of a chair’s previous owners.
There were several changes to the furniture-making industry in the 19th Century. For example, the introduction of machine-cut pieces (with the first wood-carving machine being produced in 1845) meant that furniture could be made to precise measurements. A by-product of this was that pieces might no longer have those small nicks and imperfections accumulated in the manufacturing. This led to factions forming of those favouring hand-made (such as William Morris) and those who preferred machine-cut. Either way, this also meant more could be made at a given time, making them more readily available and affordable to less affluent individuals. However, the drive to minimise costs and maximise output caused inferior materials to enter the market. As such, there is a stark contrast between Victorian furniture that has survived to this point (made with durable materials and in good condition) and that which failed to stand the test of time (such as pieces made with infected stuffing and less durable materials).
Much like the latter part of the Georgian era, mahogany was still a premiere choice of the wood industry. But, by this time, upholstered pieces became increasingly common and would become a prominent feature of quality chairs of the time. Generally, the developments undertaken in this period were typical of how most things progress. Pioneers and technological innovations opened opportunities to improve most if not all facets of the manufacturing process. The end product was a more intricately designed and decorative series of chairs.
This period also saw the creation of tete-a-tetes and gossip benches. These held a more social function. Tete-a-tetes had a more serpentine appearance and were suited for two or more people to sit down close to each other and have a chat. Gossip benches, however, grew immensely in popularity after the invention of the telephone back in 1876. They were more like sofas with a side table attached. The top was to hold a phone, and then there might be shelving or drawers for materials that may come up in conversation. Though they would peak in popularity in the 20th Century (with phones become better and more accessible), they would often be reproductions of Victorian and 19th century styles.
In the 20th Century, much of the furniture was a reproduction of a previous era or manufacturer (before the periods we call ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’). However, there was a period of Art Deco designs that came from France. These were straight and smooth designs, often vibrant in their colour palettes and geometrically influenced.
Beyond that, the critical thing in this time was further developments in the mechanisation of the industry, far more pieces were available to buy, as such styles once limited to the wealthy, they were now affordable for those who were not of equal means. The declining profits, output and trade that came with the great depression lead to a brief window of more simplistic, traditional concepts entering the market. Simply, it became less cost-effective to continue with the elaborate and intricate designs when many people lacked the means to buy them. However, towards the latter part of the Century, furniture by Ercol grew in popularity. Their shaped, sleek features would mark these. As these were mass-produced many of them featured in homes across Britain. Some still do, having kept their visual appeal and functionality.
Altogether, there is not much to say about whether different types of antique chairs have fallen in and out of fashion. Overall, chairs are an essential element to achieving certain styles in a room (older, farmhouse chairs for that rustic appearance, and more retro Ercol chairs for a contemporary look). Moreover, they are a notable feature of every home, and because they have been for so long, they may be one of the most abundant forms of antique furniture on the market. So, if you ever feel you might want to buy something with historical value, there will be options available to you.