When our founding fathers began outlining our government they looked back to the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome. After gaining Independence from England in 1776, political pride spilled over into architecture and interiors. It was known as Federal style which was popular from about 1780 until 1820. This neo classically based style had already become very popular in England where it was known as Georgian style in honor of the British monarchs.The name was changed in the states to be more politically correct.
Most of the architecture and furniture designs of this time can be traced back to Robert Adam, a Scottish architect, furniture and interior designer. He is largely accredited as being the first to integrate an entire rooms motif.
In Adam’s designs, everything from the rug to the ceilings, to the furniture would match in style. He was of course hired by well to do families. A diagram of details shown below was made for Derby House in Grosvenor Square, London. Sadly, the house was demolished in 1861.
Federal style is about symmetry and balance. Oval and circular rooms were popular.
Ornamental motifs such as festoons, swags and urns decorated walls, doorways, mantles and most spectacularly, ceilings. Here are two original engravings done by Adam’s.
The ceilings were painted in a polychrome fashion meaning “The practice of decorating architectural elements, sculpture, etc., in a variety of colors”.
Here is a closer look at a Robert Adam ceiling with classical motifs in plasterwork and painting in oil on canvas-backed paper which was completed in 1771.
As you can see pastel colors such as soft greens, yellows and blues were favored, but deep sapphire, crimson, and emerald were also widely used.
Here is a closeup of the eating parlour in Headfort House which showcases the dentils, waterleaf, entablature soffit, column, capital and a small portion of a picture frame. Headfort House contains the last remaining suite of interiors designed by Robert Adam in the Republic of Ireland.
I just cannot get over the detailing of the plasterwork on this ceiling. Headfort House is on my bucket list of places to someday visit.
Upholstery and drapes were generally made of silk or velvet and the damask pattern was quite popular.
Big names in furniture design were George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton and Duncan Phyfe.
Hepplewhite and Sheraton were English designers. It is believed that neither have pieces of furniture in existence that were attributed to them, but both had pattern books of their designs published.
Furniture and cabinet makers were then able to recreate their furniture and eventually spread their designs from England to America and beyond. This is plate 2 found in “George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide” ~London, 1788.
This chair is attributed to Samuel McIntire, a notable American architect and craftsman. The vase backed chair is based on a Hepplewhite design, as seen in the drawing above. McIntire added his own flourish by adding carved grape clusters on the legs. The chair is now part of a collection located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Thomas Sheraton, another furniture designer, produced two books of furniture patterns: “Cabinet Maker’s & Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” (1793) and “The Cabinet Dictionary” (1803). This is plate 33 from his first book.
This chair is simply known as the square backed chair. It too is attributed to Samuel McIntire.
This sofa is attributed to Duncan Phyfe, who was born in Scotland, but immigrated to the United States when he was 16 years old. While his early work was influenced by the designs of Thomas Sheraton, the pieces he became famous for were of the French Directoire style and later, the Empire style.
Several pieces of Duncan Phyfe furniture are on display in the Green Room of the White House, which is decorated in a modern day Federal style.
This is a decorative breakfront side table in the style of Robert Adam. It features a marble top, molded and carved freize (carved wood or other decorative medium) and reeded tapering legs. This style of table was/is often used in dining or drawing rooms.
Metalwork was most often done in bronze or brass. This mirror features urns, swags and festoons~ popular motifs in Federal design.
Even everyday objects, such as this wine cooler, were decorated with lavish carvings, metalwork or gilt.
Federal Style remains ever popular, particularly in areas where colonial era homes are prominent.
Popular designers who are masters of Federal Style are Bunny Williams…
… and Mario Buatta.
The “Prince Of Chintz” favors the symmetry and elaborate lushness favored in Federal Style.
For further reading you will find that many, many books have been written about Robert Adam. Here are a few of the best:
This is a good book on Federal Style.
Henrietta Spencer ~ Churchill is a master of Georgian Style.
Please let me know if there is any particular style you would like me to research and present