There are quite a few ways to understand more about where your beloved chair is from. We’ve demonstrated before how a chair’s legs can be an important indicator, but the chair’s back is equally significant in terms of identifying era, style, and origin. English and French chair backs in particular saw a good deal of innovation throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but with markedly different cultural trajectories guiding them. We’ve put together a short list of some of the more popular chair backs from both sides of the channel to help guide you.
The Chippendale style is defined as English furniture made in the 1750s and 1760s in a modification of the Rococo mold, but it also incorporates elements of Gothic and Chinese styles. Chippendale chairs often have two post-like supports on either side, and broader, more decorative support in the middle, usually with floral or regal flourishes. Examples in the Gothic mode also incorporate arches and s-curves.
The Georgian period encompasses that of Chippendale, beginning in the early 18th century and lasting until around 1810. In terms of chair backs, the style is marked by ornate carvings and pierced back splats. The period also included the innovation of the double chair—a settee-like piece of furniture that resembles two chairs fused together, making obviously for a wider back.
The Sheraton style often employs a square-shaped back with a clean flow between the backs and the arms. The middle support is the decorative centerpiece of the back, as in the other English styles, and its features can range from lyre-like shapes to fanned-out cane motifs.
The Hepplewhite style emerged at the end of the Georgian period, lasting from around 1780 to 1810, and its backs are notable for less conventional shapes, including ovals and the elegant and characteristic shield-back style.
The typical back of the Louis XIII period, which spanned the years from 1610 to 1680, was a square upholstered cushion affixed to the frame with decorative nails in gold and silver. This kind of chair is emblematic of the innovation of comfort. Furniture was no longer just a decorative or practical device, but a place to lounge. The back cushion in Louis XIII chairs could come in padded leather, tapestry, or needlepoint.
The Louis XIV period took the ethos of comfort to the next level; this was the age of the fauteuil, so backs got even cushier, and were often decked out in needle-point floral upholstery. This period also features sensuous bends and a light Rococo touch, so the tops of the chair backs often have a gentle curve to them.
Some call the Louis XV period synonymous with the Rococo esthetic, so the chair backs are elegant yet sturdy. The tops and sides might have serpentine curves, but they’ll be set into a solid, square frame. The upholstery is typically floral, as with the previous monarch’s style, and often with gilded accents. In terms of shape and decoration, this period had an affinity with the Georgian style, and therefore was also popular in England.
A little less grand and regal than the earlier forms—but still quite elegant—the Louis XVI style is marked by a smaller back, often circular or oval in shape. Most commonly the back is upholstered, but with simpler decorations than earlier chairs—a neat cameo pattern or an image of a floral bouquet against a white background, for example. Some Louis XVI backs do away with fabric and are made of a tasteful gilded cane. Popular Louis XVI motifs include rosettes, delicate carving, and ornate symmetry.
Illustrations by: Lucia Tolosa