Unique American furniture can add eye-popping touches to modern rooms, serve as prized investments, and be passed down as historically important heirlooms. American furniture, especially by mid-century modern and modernist designers, is one of the most widely collected types in today’s market.
Furniture periods in America were strongly influenced by regions abroad, namely in Europe and Asia, and were distinctly variant from the 17th through the 20th century. Today, the Early American furniture style is considered one of the most important furniture movements in America, as this style set the precedent for the American furniture movements that followed. As a starting point for new collectors and a refresher for connoisseurs, here are nine important american furniture styles, explained.
Early American Style (1640–1700)
- Geographic origin: United States
- Materials: Pine, birch, cherry, maple, oak
The Early American style of furniture emerged during the second half of the 17th century by American colonists as life in the colonies became more settled. The Early American style is unique; it was the first point where a distinct style emerged and furniture began to be about more than just practicality.
Early pieces were large and were based upon styles that were popular in England; however, there were some key differences in physical features. Common motifs on furniture from this time included floral carvings, crescent shapes, and chip-carved scrolls and leaves. These carvings are generally more primitive and less finished than similar English versions.
Furniture from this period is known for features like ornamental carvings, raised panels, finials, and woodturnings. Common materials included wood like pine, birch, maple, cherry, and oak. Because many of the colonists were still somewhat unsettled, chests were in high demand due to their portability. Other quintessential pieces from this period include the court and press cupboards, trestle tables, and beds with with low, simple headboards and low turned posts.
The Early American movement is an especially important furniture style, as the furniture styles that came after were directly impacted by the styles and techniques established during this time. The unique style and craftsmanship of these pieces make them particularly sought-after today.
Queen Anne Style (1720–1760)
- Geographic Origin: Great Britain, United States
- Materials: Walnut, maple, cherry wood
Though named for Queen Anne of Great Britain, the term was not applied to the furniture style until nearly a century later. The Queen Anne style is ornate and draws inspiration from earlier Louis XV and Rococo styles, yet gives substantial consideration to structure over ornamentation. Swooping S-curves, scallop and shell details, cabriole legs, and embroidered cushions are all hallmarks of the style.
The aesthetic was popularized in the United States in the 19th century thanks to the growing wealth of the colonists and the arrival of more skilled craftsmen looking to be paid top dollar for their furniture designs. While there are plenty examples of wing-back chairs and elaborate credenzas in the form, the highly practical and innovative secretary desk-bookcase may be one of the most notable designs associated with the movement.
Shaker Style (1787–1860s)
- Geographic Origin: Northeastern United States
- Materials: Pine, maple, cherry wood
- Key Designers: Tabitha Babbitt, Isaac N. Youngs
While Shaker furniture may be some of the simplest with its clean lines, unmatched quality, and no-fuss aesthetic, it is guided by some of the loftiest principles of any American furniture style. The Shakers were a devout religious sect governed by a strict set of moral and religious beliefs, which dictated a self-sufficient, simplistic and purpose-driven approach to life in which hard work was considered a form of worship. Shakers lived in communities separated from the rest of society where they grew their own food, made their own tools, and constructed their own buildings, furnishings, and items for everyday life.
Their work was to be without ornamentation and focused on utility, and so instead the craftsman and women of the Shaker movement devoted their attention to finding the perfect proportions, angles, and construction techniques. Examples of Shaker furniture include rocking chairs, tables, and cabinets. Shaker furniture was often painted in a subdued set of colors dictated by a strict set of sect rules called the Millennial Laws, and included blue, greens, reds, and yellows.
The Shaker ladder back chair is one of the easiest to spot as an example of Shaker design principles. The turned posts used in the backs resemble a series of rungs on a ladder while the woven wicker seats were easy to construct and extremely functional. These chairs were often stored upside-down by hooks mounted on the walls of the Shaker meeting houses.
Shaker communities declined steadily after the Civil War and there is only one Shaker settlement left today. The Shakers have left behind a rich design legacy, one which influences mainstream design and home furnishings still today.
American Empire Style (1805–1830)
- Geographic Origin: United States, primarily Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore
- Materials: Mahogany, oak wood
- Key Designers: Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier
American Empire style furniture (which overlaps with the Federal furniture style) takes inspiration from the Neoclassical and the French Empire style that was popular during the reign of Napoleon. However, in contrast to its predecessors, the American Empire style was distinct in its use of patriotic motifs including stars and eagles with spread wings.
Other common motifs of the American Empire style included columns, rope-twist carvings, animal-paw feet, stars, and anthemion leaf ornamentation, as well as a style of gilding called “vert antique” (simulating aged green bronze).
Mahogany and other dark woods were highly favored materials of the style, so much so that pieces were often stained black to appear even darker. Inlays of ebony were also used in this style as well as brass metal hardware for drawer pulls and mountings. The legs of furniture from the period were substantial and the feet could be highly ornamental, including the use of lion’s paw carvings.
Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all made large contributions to the style and each had its own set of signatures that make pieces from this era easily identifiable to a city of origin. There is an entire room at the White House (The Red Room) decorated in this furniture style.
Arts and Crafts Style (1880–1910)
- Geographic Origin: Japan, Europe, North America
- Materials: Mahogany, oak wood
- Key Designers: The Stickley Brothers and Frank Lloyd Wright
The Arts and Crafts style was an international design movement that started in Japan around 1880, spread throughout Europe, and eventually arrived in North America. The style marked a return to early medieval and folk styles of decoration and was a reaction to the heavy industrialization of the period.
At the same time the design aesthetic was evolving, so too was a social movement that called for a return to hand-crafted artisanship in furnishings and other now mass-manufactured goods. Intellectuals like William Morris (who was also an architect) pushed the anti-industrialist agenda of the movement, while designers like the Stickley Brothers were most notable for creating furniture pieces in the aesthetic, which can be mis-credited as Mission Style furniture.
Furniture designs of the Arts and Crafts style were often constructed of natural woods, primarily oak, and focused on form and function in harmony. Finishes were sparse and the wood was often fumed or painted. Hardwares were typically made of copper with inlays in natural materials such as contrasting wood, or crushed abalone shells. Legs were straight with small feet, if present at all.
In the U.S., the Arts and Crafts style gave way to the Craftsman style of the early 20th century, which is known for even heavier wood construction, stout appearance, and an enduring architecture style popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Midwestern United States.
Art Nouveau Style (1880–1910)
- Geographic Origin: Europe, United States
- Materials: Dark wood, stained glass, abalone, varnishes and veneers
- Key Designers: Louis Comfort Tiffany and Clara Weaver Parrish
Art Nouveau (or “new art”) was born in Europe out of the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic art movements. In Paris, where it experienced widespread popularity it was also referred to as Style Jules Verne, Le Style Métro (after Hector Guimard’s iron and glass subway entrances), and Belle Époque. Art Nouveau, with its organic and free-flowing lines, was a direct reaction to previous design styles which dictated strict uniformity.
Art Nouveau style furniture in the United States was considered the height of luxury in the early 20th century and was considered a decorative art style. Unlike the related European Art Nouveau style that highly valued handmade artisanship, American designs were manufactured and thus mass-produced using the latest processes of the day. However, this only added to their appeal among the U.S. elite, as they were considered state-of-the-art pieces.
One of the strongest visual elements of the movement was the graceful and elongated “whiplash” curve inspired by studies of botany and marine life during the time. The furniture designs of Art Nouveau style were complex, featuring graceful, carved wood details and high-sheen finishes. Designs often featured organic motifs including buds, leaves, bulbs, and female figures with flowing hair.
Art Deco Style (1925–1940s)
- Geographic Origin: France, United States
- Materials: Chrome, stainless steel, Bakelite, stained glass, lacquer
The Art Deco design movement was a progression from the Art Nouveau of the early 20th century and marked a move toward a machine-influenced “modern” age of design. The soft organic curves of the Art Nouveau style were replaced by symmetry and a preference for the rectangular versus curvilinear.
Other visual art styles of the day also impacted the design movement including Cubism, Modernism, and Futurism. The Art Deco design style is often marked by bright colors, bold geometric designs, and ornate metallic and other highly reflective finishes. Art Deco architecture is easily identifiable, with the Chrysler building, an icon of the New York City skyline, standing as a towering example of the Art Deco design aesthetic.
Art Deco emphasized geometric forms: spheres, polygons, rectangles, chevrons, and sunburst motifs, often arranged in symmetrical patterns. Materials used were modern with aluminum, stainless steel, Bakelite, chrome, and plastic all frequently employed in Art Deco designs. Stained glass, inlays, and lacquer were also common. Art Deco also permeated everyday housewares of the period including dinnerware, cookware, clocks, textiles, ceramics, radios, telephones, and other electronics.
Mid-Century Modern Style (1933–1965)
- Geographic Origin: United States
- Materials: Walnut wood, ceramic, upholstery
- Key Designers: George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames
The mid-century modern movement, which spanned from roughly 1933 to 1965, was primarily focused on designing natural forms with a modernist slant.
The design aesthetic gained steam in post-World War II America as young families moved to the suburbs and suddenly had a need to furnish their new modern abodes. The architecture of the mid-century movement utilized low horizontal lines and post and beam construction to achieve open and airy ranch style interiors featuring large expanses of windows used to draw the outdoors in.
Modern housewives living in these new spaces didn’t want their grandmother’s sofas and knick knacks from a bygone era; they were living in the future and wanted decor to match. The overstuffed settees and ornately carved furniture of previous eras was replaced with pieces flaunting minimalist lines and a mix of natural woods and durable upholsteries.
Angles were sleek and simplistic, structural elements often left exposed and natural materials used in abundance throughout the designs. Iconic furniture designs included those with futuristic names like “sputnik,” “atomic,” and “miracle,” making it clear that while inspirations were from nature, the movement’s gaze was toward the future and the nuclear age.
Minimalist Style (1960s–present)
- Geographic Origin: Europe, Scandinavia, United States
- Materials: Metals, lacquer, glass
- Key Designers: Donald Judd and Robert Morris
“Minimalist” is a term often used to describe anything stripped down to its fundamental essence. In the arts it’s often applied to sparse compositions whether they be paintings, music, poetry, architecture, or furniture. The artists and craftsmen of the minimalist movement generally felt that their art was not as much about self-expression, but rather was “objective” and tied to aesthetic goals.
Trademarks of minimalism include geometric, often cubic forms used without metaphor, balance of form, the use of repetition, neutral surfaces, and construction using industrial materials. There is a tendency toward an elongated horizontal plane and lack of partitions or separations in forms. In furnishings, this equates to long, low-profile pieces like, sofas and lounges, with single cushions in a single monochromatic palette.
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe coined the phrase “less is more,” which has come to be heavily associated with the design aesthetic. Minimalism is not devoid of emotion, as some might think, and is actually closely connected to a sense of intuitive feeling, designers often consider the “essence” of a form heavily in their designs. A tenet of the minimalist design movement is that a space and its furnishings are stripped down to their absolute essential parts. Key elements in minimalist design include light, form, material, space, location, and human condition.
Through the course of early American history, furniture styles in America evolved in reaction to societal changes and geographical influences. Because of this, these nine American furniture movements each have unique characteristics that impact their stylistic elements. The revolutionary craftsmanship and style of Early American furniture created in the 17th century influenced each American furniture style that followed. Learning both the history and the variances in styles and quintessential pieces from each American furniture movement is essential for understanding their value in today’s market.
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