How furniture maker Thomas Chippendale became a brand
Thomas Chippendale was one of that set of designers and furniture makers in the 18th century who became brands: we always think of Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite. All three were northern joiners who came to London to set up their businesses at a time when demand was booming. But Chippendale – born nearly 300 years ago on 5 June 1718 – did so much more than these contemporaries, who were more designers than makers. He not only ran a furniture manufacturing company, but also a large, full-service interiors business. In the language of today, he had both contract and retail divisions. You could pick up a nice octagonal side table, say, in his St Martin’s Lane shop, or he would fit out a complete country house – and did, many of them.
This brought him into contact with the same rarefied aristocratic client base as another set of contemporaries, the Adam Brothers. But Chippendale (1718-1779) overlapped with them only on the interiors side of things, and never extended himself into actual architecture as they did. Indeed, he collaborated with them and with another architect of the time, Sir William Chambers of Somerset House fame. At Harewood House in Yorkshire – not so far from his birthplace in Otley – the legacy of Adam and Chippendale remains as intact as the family that lives there and originally commissioned them both, the Lascelles.
Chippendale’s commission for the interiors of the new Neoclassical house there was worth £10,000 in 1767, a huge amount. Over several years he tackled every room. There are some gloriously original pieces there, prime among them the Diana and Minerva Commode of 1773, a richly modelled and inlaid sideboard in mahogany and rare woods. From 28 March Harewood House is mounting a special exhibition and series of workshops and events to mark his 300th anniversary and Leeds City Museum also has a major exhibition until 9 June.
The son of a joiner himself, Chippendale could have been just another high-class cabinet-maker, but he had a keen eye for fashions in interiors and a grander plan than his rivals. This involved what was essentially a catalogue – a pattern book that was the most ambitious of its kind. The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director was a look-book with 160 engravings of furniture of all kinds divided into to-die for styles: deeply-carved English, frou-frou Rococo French, Chinese style including lattice and lacquerwork, and Gothic – all pointed arches and quatrefoils. Later Chippendale added the Neoclassical look, as popularised by the Adams.
It was published by subscription and very successful, going through successive editions. This tells us that Chippendale was already established, a well-known name, by the time he published it in 1754, only six years after he arrived in London. Nor was it confined to Britain: owners of its French edition were to include Catherine the Great of Russia and Louis XVI of France.
To us today, publishing an open-source book of your designs in this way might seem risky: what’s to stop anyone copying them, rather than commissioning the author? Well, nothing, in those pre-copyright times, and that was part of the idea. Other cabinet-makers subscribed to the book, made the designs, branded them ‘Chippendale’ and so spread the fame of the author, while the aristocrats who also bought into it commissioned the man directly.
Not that it was money all the way: the aristocracy was notorious for late payment or not paying at all, so Chippendale and his business – at one point employing 50 people – always struggled with cash flow.
Although plenty of his designs were purely ornamental, Chippendale knew his craft inside out. He trained his workers to build to last, producing simpler retail designs as well as his showpieces. Our idea of a classic dining chair, for instance, as modified endlessly to the present day – famously in laminate in the 1980s by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown – is down to him.
Exhibitions and events celebrating Thomas Chippendale’s 300th anniversary can be found at chippendale300.co.uk