One of the easiest and most reliable ways to accurately predict the age and provenance of a piece of furniture—particularly a chair—is by sneaking a peek at its shapely gams. From sleek and minimal to ornate and intricately carved, legs come in a variety of forms and constructions, each unique and each correlating to a specific time and place in history. And while eager students will find in-depth coverage in the inimitable Judith Miller’s fantastic Antiques Encyclopedia, join us now in honoring some of our favorite legs—the Tina Turners of English and French design, if you will—by way of a brief introduction.
A mainstay in what is referred to as Queen Anne Style, the cabriole leg was dominant in furniture originating in England from 1712 to 1760. While the stem’s signature S form originally appeared in furniture recovered from ancient China and Greece, its European interpretation was often crafted from one solid piece of wood, such as mahogany, walnut, cherry, and maple.
A not-so-distant cousin of the cabriole, the Chippendale leg was first introduced in the 1750s by Thomas Chippendale, a London cabinetmaker, who implemented this more delicate and ornate version of the Queen Anne Style leg, often with a ball-and-claw design, into his furniture creations. When paired with the elaborate fretwork on the chairs’ backs, for which the style is known, the legs are more easily identifiable.
In a complete departure from the earlier English preoccupation with curvy, flared legs, furniture influenced by the work of London cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton in the late 1700s through to the early 19th century feature straight legs with rounded, neoclassical-style center columns that are sometimes joined by spade or bun feet.
On the heels of the Sheraton era in the early to mid-19th century, Federal furniture borrowed much from its chronological neighbor: a heavy emphasis on Classical and Georgian styles, as well as a general reliance on straight lines and minimal ornamentation. The legs’ gentle tapering is a unique characteristic of the style as is the inclusion of geometric shapes in addition to inlay and marquetry work.
When Louis XIII assumed the crown in 1610, it heralded a major shift in France’s visual and cultural history, most notably, by ushering in Italian influences in the fine and decorative arts of the time. (The king’s mother, Marie de’ Medici, a native of Florence, wielded some influence over the preferred aesthetic.) The legs here, then, are more elaborate, often featuring heavily carved and structured elements that elevate them almost to sculpture in their own right.
Heavy carving and scrolling on the legs and stretchers are an integral design element in the furniture built under the reign of Louis XIV from 1643 to 1715. This appreciation for ornamentation is perhaps not surprising considering Louis XIV was the king responsible for moving all monarchical operations to Versailles, and who later appointed a supervisor to matters of royal furniture, writing, “There is nothing that indicates more clearly the magnificence of great princes than their superb palaces and their precious furniture.”
While the legs common in furniture from the Louis XV era, from 1715 to 1774, are exceedingly similar to the cabriole legs that were popular in England at around the same time, there are some slight stylistic differences: For example, the S form is often less severe on the French version, and the legs typically lack the bun or pad foot seen in Queen Anne Style. There’s also a playfulness and lightness at hand in the ornamentation of pieces from this Rococo period that sets it apart from its predecessor’s strict, grand Baroque aesthetic.By the time the reign of Louis XVI began in 1774, the decorative world was ready for a change. Out went the voluptuous, curved lines of the furniture legs of yesteryear, and in entered the sultry, fluted legs of the Neoclassical era. The legs from this period feature carved, concave grooves and rounded channels that are reminiscent of ancient Greek columns.
Illustrations by Brielle Ferreira and Lucia Tolosa