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American Empire Furniture

For some the period known as "American Empire", roughly 1820 to 1840, forms a simple continuum with the furniture and interiors of the Federal era, however a number of distinct characteristics can be identified.


Although the empire period was paralleled in England, in Regency furniture, the influence of English design, and designers such as Thomas Hope, declined significantly. Instead American furniture makers began to break away from things English, and took their inspiration from the Neoclassical, Grecian style of French designers of the French Empire period in France. Napoleon's admiration for the Roman Empire, his trip to Egypt, and several archaeological expeditions to Greece and Rome all influenced French, and then American, styles of decor.

Major Characteristics

The curved lines of ancient Greek furniture were used in legs of tables and chairs; classical motifs such as the lyre were used in decoration, and pillars and scrolls were often incorporated. Pillar and scroll style furniture is typical of the Empire period; this feature was not seen in early Federal furniture. The Pillar and Scroll style was very popular with clockmakers during this period, particularly Eli Terry and there are many outstanding collectors items still in existence today.

American craftsmen and designers manifested no intention of slavishly copying French models. Nor did they allow their ingenuity and inventiveness, qualities for which American cabinet makers have always been distinguished, to be held in check by the limitations of classical traditions. They adopted just what they admired, and combined it with such improvements as they considered were desirable. The result was the creation of a style possessing much originality. Except to the critic who resents the disloyalty to the parent style, American Empire furniture has many attractions. It often suggests the dignity and grandeur of the French pieces, coupled with that insistence upon utility for which the American is famous.

In the early days, pains were taken to reproduce at least some really Empire features, but, as time went on, the furniture became gradually less and less "Empire" and more and more American, and in this lies its real value to the antique collector, and furniture admirer, today.

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