As one of the best and well known furniture designers in the world, Thomas Chippendale is probably best known for his wooden office furniture with baroque or neo-classical carvings. His desks and secretaries are legend in the furniture design world, and indeed Chippendale has a furniture style named after him.
Chippendale was born near Otley and quickly become known as a quality cabinet maker and English furniture designer. As the only child of Mary and John Chippendale, also a joiner and carpenter, Thomas likely learned the trade from his family who had been woodworkers for several generations. Chippendale, who was born in 1718, was recognized for his work in the mid-Georgian, English Rococo (also known as late Baroque) and Neoclassical styles with reams of ornate trimmings, carvings and edgings. Chippendale spent time working as a journeyman cabinet maker and freelance designer before Chippendale published a book that set off his furniture design career called “Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.” Self-described as “elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste,” this was the beginning of Chippendale’s claim to fame as he become one of the top furniture designers of the 18th Century. This century following the Renaissance led a strong Late Baroque influence that Chippendale carried into his modern neoclassical interior designs. His book quickly sold out and had a second edition printed, while a new edition was printed in 1762 with new designs added.
The book was so significant because Chippendale was the first furniture designer to use such a method to promote his furniture designs. This book led to an offshoot of copies of Chippendale furniture produced across Europe.
Historians have classified Chippendale’s work into four specific categories from the English-influenced pieces using motifs of lions while other period pieces brought in Baroque or Rococo influences. Other pieces had what was called Chinoiserie which utilized the Chinese accents of pagodas, bamboo, latticework and other features while his last design technique was heavily Goth influenced with arches, quatrefoils and other ornate elements added to the furniture designs.
His signature pieces of course, included desks and secretaries with multiple drawers, pulls and hidden sections. Chippendale was also the creator of one of the first drop leaf tables in existence. Traditionally Chippendale designed in mahagony, using a solid wood that allowed the deep carvings into his works.
Chippendale worked closely with a team 50 different craftsmen that were employed by him and an additional stream of freelance carpenters, designers and more. Chippendale was responsible for decorating and designing the insides of some of the great English homes and indeed, he preferred extended commissions for an individual home. While Chippendale was a carpenter and wood-worker, he was also knowledgeable on interior design and color.
Chippendale also trained his son Thomas Chippendale, Jr., the trade of furniture-making as well. In 1777, after Chippendale Sr. partially retired, the younger took over the business which eventually closed around 1804. Chippendale had picked up a number of his father’s clients, though his tastes evolved to those of his time.