In celebration of the 300th anniversary of Thomas Chippendale’s birth, Winterthur Museum has organized an exhibit featuring its collection of rococo-inspired furniture, Thomas Chippendale’s publications, and related publications and objects influenced by Chippendale’s designs. Cecilia Aquino, Winterthur intern, sat down with Josh Lane, the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil Curator of Furniture at Winterthur Museum, to get a deeper understanding of Thomas Chippendale’s prominence as a cabinetmaker, an interior designer, an author, a teacher, a businessman, and a major influencer in the decorative arts.
CA: What do we know about Thomas Chippendale?
JL: Not a lot. It’s so interesting. He has international name recognition, yet little is known about the man himself. We know where he was born, whom he married, how many kids he had, and where he lived and worked in London. His name is synonymous with rococo-style furniture, but did you know that some of the best furniture from his workshop is in the later neoclassical taste?
CA: What do we know about his early life?
JL: In a nutshell, he was born in the north of England in Yorkshire, in a town called Otley, and apparently was the only surviving son of the family. Where he went to learn cabinetmaking, and from whom, is a mystery, but around the age of 30 he had moved to London. He settled in an area of the city that was already on the map as a hive of artistic activity and the place to go for luxury shopping. There were other immigrant artists and craftsmen already in the neighborhood who had introduced a new style—the rococo. It was there that William Hogarth, the painter and satirical printmaker, established an art school that promoted rococo drawing and design work. The French had invented this new style decades earlier, and immigrant craftsmen brought it to London, where it was considered very chic, exciting, and expressive–though it didn’t appeal to everybody. So Chippendale encountered rococo furniture designs from others already working in the style and from artists who had published design books featuring rococo ornament. For example, the exhibit features a little gem of book called Sixty Different Sorts of Ornaments that an Italian immigrant artist named Gaetano Brunetti published in 1736. His engravings of looking glasses and sconces dripping with rococo flourishes helped introduce the new style to Londoners. This book suggests that by the time Chippendale was settling in London, craftspeople were beginning to apply the rococo aesthetic to consumer goods.
CA: So if Gaetano Brunetti published Sixty Different Sorts of Ornaments in 1736, when was Thomas Chippendale’s design book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, published?
JL: In the early 1750s, he conceived of his own design book and had signed up over 300 subscribers, who each paid a fair amount of money to support its production and publication. The book was published in 1754, and subscribers received their copies. It was jaw dropping in its unprecedented large format, lavish engraved illustrations, and length. Producing the book meant coming up with designs, drawing them, and then overseeing the artist who engraved the copper printing plates with reverse copies of the drawings so that they would print properly. It was a major endeavor: he had to buy the copper plates and printing paper; arrange for binding; and pay the engraver and printer. Chippendale was really creative. He produced this lush, fabulous, beautiful book. Although he wasn’t the first to publish a book of furniture designs, his was the most lavish and ambitious to date. And he did it because he had a vision for a high-quality product that would guide other cabinetmakers in the latest furniture fashions and also because he viewed the book as a means of self-promotion.
CA: Would you say that was the start of his career?
JL: Having already established himself in London as a skilled and successful cabinetmaker, the book helped launched him on the next phase of his career, enabling him to transform his business. Chippendale was ambitious and wanted to advance to the next level—from cabinetmaker to upholsterer. At the time, upholsterer was the term for a professional who provided comprehensive decorating services. Chippendale viewed his book as a way to attract the attention of aristocratic clients and induce them to hire him to decorate their country houses. And it worked! Clients called on him to choose everything from wallpaper to the carvings over the doorways and the mantles, carpeting, and lighting fixtures. His team of cabinetmakers supplied all the furniture and upholstery. The success of the first edition of his book prompted him to issue two more editions, and soon business was booming. With the financial backing of a wealthy investor, he expanded his workshops and hired craft specialists including carvers, gilders, paper hangers and paint decorators, eventually overseeing as many as 60 craftsmen. He acted not only as business entrepreneur, negotiating with clients, managing payroll, ordering supplies, but also as artistic director and manager of quality control.
However great his fame, his expanded role as upholsterer didn’t make him rich because costs were high and profits had to be shared. He actually flirted with bankruptcy after one of his backers died. His son took over the firm in the late 1770s and went bankrupt in 1804, although he continued to make furniture beyond that date.
CA: Did he get offended if anybody published sketches after his? Or was it more of a compliment that they were inspired by him?
JL: Well, here is the thing, although Chippendale took credit as sole author of the Director, we don’t know if he invented all of the designs in his books. We will probably never know because we don’t know what he was looking at for inspiration, what kind of furniture he was making, or even what works from other shops he was basing his ideas off of. In the end, his drawings of furniture designs probably are a mix of original ideas and riffs on the works of other London cabinetmakers. He made friends with lots of artists in his London neighborhood such as Matthias Lock, a carver and engraver, whom he also employed and who had published a modest book of rococo ornaments before the appearance of Chippendale’s Director. We don’t know, for example, whether Matthias Lock contributed designs to Chippendale’s book.
In turn, Chippendale meant his designs to be shared, studied, copied, and to serve as sources of inspiration. Essentially, the idea was that one could take this new style, the rococo, and work at it, practice it, develop it, and publish interpretations of it—and in so doing, advertise one’s artistic skills. The idea of the “inspired genius artist” who came up with original designs unlike those of any others, is just not the way it worked. Artists and craftsmen shared ideas, putting their own spin on them.
Chippendale prefaced the Director with drawings of the five orders of classical architecture and in the text exhorted workmen to study and learn these orders. He believed that familiarity with the classical orders was an essential component of every cabinetmaker’s education NOT because they needed to know what an Ionic or Corinthian capital looked like, but because the concept behind the orders was that of proportion. Each order had a slightly different proportional scheme that could be extrapolated to buildings, furniture, and other objects, to differing effect. The implication being that the most successful furniture designs were those adapted from his book by craftsmen grounded in principles of classical proportion.
CA: Would you say that is a distinguishing factor of Thomas Chippendale’s work versus other cabinetmakers?
JL: At the same time Chippendale offered full-service interior design work, he and his journeymen used high-quality materials to produce consistently well-made furniture for sale in his showroom. In this regard, he wasn’t different from other top-flight cabinetmakers. In terms of his furniture design book, I think the notion of design sharing—designs intended for use and adaptation by others—was spread across the decorative arts. Ornamental designs were to be adapted for use in textiles, carving, metalwork, and other goods as well as in furniture. The craft community was fluid and the legal concept of “intellectual property” as we know it today—exclusive ownership of creative content, protected by law against copying and imitation—had not yet become a major concern, at least regarding published designs.
CA: What would you imagine Thomas Chippendale saying about the type of furniture we see being created today?
JL: Well, here is the other thing about Chippendale that is so interesting to me, he published rococo designs and his name has become virtually synonymous with rococo, but his work was far wider. Going back to the idea of rococo itself, he didn’t invent the style. He is just working in it and selling it to fashionable people. It was a French idea that first appeared the early 1700s. At the time, France had a royal system of patronage and state-sponsored art schools, where rococo design was refined and promoted. By the time Chippendale published the Director in 1754, the style had been around for 30 years. The third edition of his book wasn’t published until 1762. Over that period of eight years, tastes had begun to change. Chippendale himself, for his most fashion-forward clients, started to work in the neoclassical style.
So Chippendale had his finger to the winds of change in fashion and was ready to embrace new ideas and create designs in the latest style. I think he appreciated the spark of creative flair in other craftsmen. From a design, methods, and materials standpoint, were he to visit us today, I think he would probably find high-end studio furniture intriguing and inspiring. From a business standpoint, he would probably be flummoxed by the business model of small furniture studios producing “art furniture” independent of one another. He would certainly recognize professional interior designers as kindred spirits. On the other hand, I imagine he would dismiss factory-made furniture out of hand—and imagine his chagrin and horror at the use of particle-board and plastic laminates!