In the 18th century, the ‘big three’ furniture makers are undoubtedly Thomas Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite.
Thomas Chippendale is probably the most famous of all. He was a cabinet maker and furniture designer based in London. Styles ranged from English with deep carving, elaborate anglicised rococo, Chinese style with latticework and lacquer, and Gothic with pointed arches, quatrefoils and fret-worked legs. In later years he adopted the Neoclassical style. His father was joiner and probably the person that got Thomas started in the trade.
He was the first cabinet-maker to publish a book of his designs, which was called The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, published in 1754. This influenced many other cabinet makers and illustrated almost every type of mid-18th century domestic furniture.
Chippendale was an interior designer as well as a cabinet maker. He advised on soft furnishings and the overall look that a room should have. His work was desired by the rich and famous and he frequently took commissions from the aristocracy.
He died of TB in 1779 but has been commemorated with a full size statue on the V&A Museum and a memorial plaque can be found in Otley, Yorkshire (his probable birthplace) outside of the old Prince Henry’s Grammar School. His son of the same name went carried on the family business.
Thomas Sheraton also worked in London from 1790 as a professional consultant and architecture and design teacher.
His designs were based on classical architecture and can be categorised as Neoclassical. They were often made from inlaid satinwood. Whilst he was a designer, there is no evidence that he actually created the pieces himself. Only one piece can actually be credited to him – a glass fronted bookcase which bears the stamp T.S inside one drawer.
Sheraton also published an influential work – “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” which was available to the public in 1791 – it greatly influenced English and American design. He also published “The Cabinet Dictionary” in 1803, explaining the techniques of furniture making and upholstery. His last book was volume 1 of “Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and General Artist’s Encyclopaedia” in 1805. He died in 1806.
George Hepplewhite is the last of the ‘big three’. He also worked in London but as a man, little is really known about him.
His name is known for a slender, elegant furniture style and particularly for a large shield shape on chair backs. No pieces made by him or his firm are thought to exist now.
He died in 1786 and in 1788, his widow Alice published “The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide”, featuring about 300 of his designs. Some claim that George Hepplewhite is actually just a pen name for Alice because it is so hard to find evidence of the man.
Hepplewhite’s designs only really found fame after the date of his death.
Chippendale and his contemporaries were excellent furniture designers and influenced the cabinet makers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their designs and publications are so important that they will continue to influence people as furniture design evolves throughout the ages.