Something We Can All Agree On: the Beauty of Philadelphia Chippendale Furniture

Talking about politics too much makes you ugly, so I like to follow along with a a certain level of detachment. Too many people want to yell about what they believe and aren't willing to listen to the other side, or even assume the best intentions from people who disagree with them. I prefer a softer approach: I try to listen to both sides fairly, form my opinions, and then keep them to myself. When things get too ugly, I unplug and turn to something beautiful as a palate cleanser.

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, expresses the rococo ideals of lightness, playfulness, and femininity.

In the spirit of this week's Democratic National Convention, I wanted to discuss Philadelphia furniture in the colonial period (and, in all fairness, I would have written about Cleveland furniture during the RNC, if only Cleveland had made any notable contributions to decorative arts, bless its heart). I've always been interested in the difference between furniture styles in colonial cities--in what makes a Philadelphia chair so...Philadelphia. In New York, where there was a large population of British loyalists and there were many British immigrants to interpret the latest London trends, the furniture and decorative arts have a distinctly English feel. In New England, where there were fewer immigrant cabinetmakers, carvers, and engravers, local craftsmen focused more on the form of pieces than the decoration. In Philadelphia, a uniquely American rococo style emerged when craftsmen took New England furniture forms and added fashionable embellishments in the latest Chippendale styles.

Philadelphia Tea Table


Philadelphia Tea Table in mahogany, 1765-75, attributed to Hercules Courtenay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tea tables in Philadelphia were usually round, often with tops that tilted to the side and a tripod stand. The piece above has a scalloped top and reeded stand that expresses weight and tension through the sturdy legs and the compressed ring on the pillar, which give the impression of that they are bearing weight from the top of the table. This is a uniquely Philadelphia feature.

Philadelphia Game Table


The Francis-Fisher-Coxe Chippendale carved mahogany card table, circa 1760.

Like many Philadelphia flip top game tables, the Francis-Fisher-Coxe table has cabriole legs, and less carved ornament than contemporary chairs or case furniture. The apron and skirt appear to be the joint work of a cabinet maker and joiner, and the distinctly separated areas are a uniquely American feature. The piece has a serpentine shaped apron with a light decoration of a central cobochon and carved acanthus leaves at the knees. The ball and claw feet have a compressed ball, as if bearing weight, in the Philadelphia style.

Philadelphia High Chest of Drawers


Philadelphia high chest of drawers in mahogany, pine, and poplar, circa 1780. De Young Museum.

The iconic Philadelphia high chest of drawers took a uniquely American style case piece and added elegant contemporary rococo decoration. The signature detail on the Philadelphia high chest of drawers is the dramatic central finial, set above the highly figured carving on the tympanum. The piece has a a broken pediment, with flame finials to either side, and reticulated batwing bail pulls on each drawer. Carving near the serpentine shaped apron reflects that on the tympanum, and the knees are covered in carved decoration and terminate in compressed claw and ball feet.


These and other beautiful examples of colonial furniture emerged at a point in our history during which loyalists and patriots were fiercely divided. Trouble was brewing in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charleston, and it would ultimately boil over into the American Revolution, but not before there were non-importation acts on goods and materials from England that ultimately shaped the furniture and decorative arts of the period. These pieces are a product of their unique point in history, and understanding their story is understanding our American story.

Be sweet to each other, friends, and seek out the beautiful, even where there's discord!

The Corn Top’s Ripe and the Meadow’s in the Bloom: a Day Trip to My Old Kentucky Home


Kentucky girls on the front steps of My Old Kentucky Home

"Why don't we just go up there and say, 'This was our last weekend together, and we didn't feel like going to Fort Sumter and touring goddamn colonial homes. We wanted to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance'? I mean why can't we tell them the truth?" --Carson, from the movie Shag I never tour a colonial home that I don't think of that immortal line from Shag (the greatest slumber party movie of all time). Of course, like any other fun loving Southern former sorority girl, I make it a point never to miss an opportunity to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance. Unlike Carson, I've never considered those activities mutually exclusive with touring colonial homes. I was the kind of child who enjoyed that sort of thing, and I still do. Colonial Williamsburg is my Las Vegas, and I love the party atmosphere in New Orleans almost as I love the French Empire antiques on Royal Street. Wandering through M.S. Rau or Ida Manheim, and then picking up a Hurricane in a go-cup is pretty much my idea of a perfect day.

These Kentuckians know good bourbon when they see it.

I admit I was hesitant at first to let my own children in on the fun. The last thing I need is for one of my precious angels to break a piece of the historic wedding ring Limoges in the dining room of My Old Kentucky Home. But they have to learn good taste somewhere, and now's the time--otherwise they'll be 30 years old and standing completely bewildered in the middle of a Pottery Barn, with no clue where or how to begin. They'll be the sort of people who can't look at a chair and decide immediately if they like it or not, and so they have to search for a year for the right chairs, and constantly discuss their exhaustive search with bored friends and family. That is something I simply cannot abide. I feel sad for people who have no idea what their tastes are; I won't let it happen to my family. And that brings us to our day trip to My Old Kentucky Home, which I never would have attempted without the help of my gracious parents. Can you imagine taking these people into a 221-year-old house without reinforcements? HorseHead2   It went well though. No one broke anything. The worst thing that happened was that Bea touched a marble top tea table just because I told her not to. I'm lucky to have an eight-year-old who does not suffer fools, or put up with any shenanigans from her sisters; she immediately laid the smack down. The girls got to hold some authentic sugar snips (they know how obsessed I am with sugar chests), and got to see a gorgeous old piano with mother-of-pearl keys and one of those creepy portraits where the eyes follow you. Our tour guide led us in a rousing chorus of My Old Kentucky Home, which my girls know by heart; it made me proud to hear them sing along. When Anne Miriam noticed the matching trumeau mirrors in the front hall, I had one of those rare transcendent parental moments where I knew I'm doing something right--which probably means that karma will be knocking me back down soon enough.  

The girls explored this pretty arbor on the side of the carriage house.


"Wait for me, everybody!"