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New Zealand Home & Building, October-November 1985

The History of Interior Design — Part four — Thomas Chippendale, the Adam Brothers, and Neo-Classicism

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The History of Interior Design
Part four
Thomas Chippendale, the Adam Brothers, and Neo-Classicism

Auckland interior designer Victor Pritchett traces the development of interior design from its beginnings in 17th century Europe to present day.

Auckland interior designer Victor Pritchett traces the development of interior design from its beginnings in 17th century Europe to present day.

The middle of the 18th century saw the end of the basic principles of Renaissance architecture mainly due to the fact that ancient ruins of Roman and Greek buildings had been discovered which showed a different, and many thought, a superior kind of beauty.

It was realised that Roman architecture, as in Rome, was only one phase of architectural development. Archaeology was fast becoming an interesting pastime for the wealthy classes and examples of a freer and less austere approach to design were page 59found in the sites of Baalbek in the Lebanon and Palmyra, Syria and many others.

Travellers returned with sketches of shapes and formwork which was generally a much more romantic approach to design. At the same time artists and writers were questioning the function of symmetry and uniformity. The development of a much more romantic and less mathematical approach to furniture and interior design, brought about by the Rococo, was now coinciding with an assault on the basic principles of architecture, brought about by these wonderful discoveries.

Antiques became big business. At this time many Greek and Roman sculptures, along with many other artifacts, were purloined from the many digs found in the near East, Herculaneum and Athens. Robert and James Adam measured and sketched Diocletian's Palace at Spalatro. James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, famous men of these times, drew the ruins of Athens and sketches were made of Baalbek and Palmyra by Robert Wood. All of this happened in the middle of the 18th century. The effect this was to have on design was immediate. Renaissance Classicism and Palladian tradition still continued to be popular and indeed carried on for many decades.

The new approach is probably best exemplified in the work of Robert Adam 1728-1792. Familiar with a variety of ancient sources, as well as 16th century architecture in the Roman style and trained in English Palladianism, Adam had the skill required to adapt this newly found "catalogue" of designs. A domestic planner of great ability and an interior decorator of genius, Adam was in great demand from the early 1860's to the end of the 80's. Much of his work was carried out on existing buildings where he executed interior and exterior design, making beautiful additions in the form of staircases and entries with magnificent wrought iron balustrades — done so lightly it looks like tracery.

Adam built mainly houses in the country and smaller town-houses — one of the best of these being a house used as headquarters by The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company in Curzon Street, Mayfair, London. This building along with Iveagh House, Hampstead is open to the public and has some of the most superb examples of Adam's artistry. His lightness of touch is evident in the ceilings, fireplaces, and panelled rooms he created. In the latter it is well evident that the discoveries at Pompeii had some influence.

Robert Adam had many imitators and his composite style dominated the domestic scene for thirty years, having a great influence on design in France and Germany.

The Adam style was used extensively by furniture designers, but one of the best examples of the style is in porcelain made by Josiah Wedgewood, and known as Jasper. The shapes created by Wedgewood, the relief decoration and the colour, epitomises the Adam style perfectly.

Chippendale's "The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director" was published in 1754. It contained 160 engraved plates illustrating the full range of furniture of the day. The "Director" was dedicated to the Earl of Northumberland and subscribed to by nobility and gentry and by a large number of builders, cabinet-makers and other craftsmen. It contained designs for furniture which encompassed all of the latest Rococo ornamental design, but using it very lightly. French-style elbow chairs which were fully upholstered, were given light cabriole legs ending in scrolled feet, the knees carved with cartouches and leaves. Those in the Chinese taste had legs carved in imitations of bamboo and backs that incorporated pagoda motifs or lattice work. This was the first time that designs had been published in which Rococo forms were used with such freedom. The "Director" contained some new and original ideas.

Of Chippendale's work as a cabinet-maker, little is known. Correspondence with clients and some invoices survive to tell us something of the orders he fulfilled. The Duke of Dumfries and Portland were among his clients and correspondence exists between Chippendale and the Earl of Pembroke which makes it possible to identify the pieces he made. They include some very simple and inexpensive pieces — not everything from his workshop was elaborate and expensive.

Some of the finest pieces he is known to have made, are between 1776 and 1770. These pieces were made for the Hare-wood House in Yorkshire — then being remodelled by Robert Adam and very much in the Neo-Classical style.

Many pieces of furniture of this style survived but these cannot be attributed to Chippendale. The "Director" was used by most firms and individual craftsmen and as a result the term Chippendale is used loosely to describe mid 18th century furniture.

In conclusion a remarkable collection of over 9,000 drawings is preserved at the Soane Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields, London. These drawings were purchased by Sir John Soane after Adam's death. Several hundred of the drawings are of furniture and it is possible to trace not only the development of Adam's style, but also the various design stages of well known pieces.

Next we will look at the increasing simplicity that came into late 18th century design, the work of George Hepplewhite and the progress of Neo-Classicism.

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