In the 18th century, the ‘big three’ designer furniture makers are undoubtedly Thomas Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite.
Thomas Chippendale is probably the most well known today. He was a cabinet maker and furniture designer based in London (although he wasn’t born there). Styles ranged from English with deep carving, elaborate anglicised rococo, Chinese style with latticework and lacquer, and Gothic with pointed arches, quatrefoils and fret-worked legs. In later years he adopted the Neoclassical style. His father was a joiner and probably the person that got Thomas started in the trade.
Chippendale was the first cabinet-maker to publish a book of his designs. It was was called The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, published in 1754. This influenced many other cabinet makers and deatiled almost every type of mid-18th century domestic furniture.
Chippendale was also an interior designer. He advised on soft furnishings and the overall image that a room should have. His work was desired by the rich and famous and he often had commissions from the aristocracy.
He passed away in 1779 after contracting TB but has been commemorated with a full size statue on the V&A Museum and a memorial plaque has been erected in Otley, Yorkshire (his probable birthplace) outside of the old Prince Henry’s Grammar School. His son of the same name went carried on the family business.
Thomas Sheraton also worked in London from 1790 as a professional consultant and architecture and design teacher.
His designs were based on classical architecture and are known as as Neoclassical. They were often made from inlaid satinwood. Whilst he was a designer, he didn’t necessarily create the pieces himself. Only one piece can actually be attributed to him – a glass fronted bookcase which bears the stamp T.S inside one drawer.
Sheraton also published an influential work – “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” which was available to the public in 1791 – it greatly influenced English and American design. He also published “The Cabinet Dictionary” in 1803, explaining the techniques of furniture making and upholstery. His last book was volume 1 of “Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and General Artist’s Encyclopaedia” in 1805. He died in 1806.
George Hepplewhite is the last of the ‘big three’. He also worked in London but as a man, little is really known about him.
His name is synonymous with a slender, elegant furniture style and particularly for a large shield shape on chair backs. No pieces made by him or his firm are thought to exist now.
In 1788, two years after his death, his widow Alice published “The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide”, featuring around 300 of his designs. Some claim that George Hepplewhite is actually just a pen name for Alice because it is so hard to find evidence of the man.
Hepplewhite’s designs only really found fame after the date of his death.
Chippendale and his contemporaries were brilliant furniture designers and influenced the cabinet makers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their publications and designs are so important that they will continue to influence people as furniture design evolves throughout the ages.