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August 24, 2019

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Trash or treasure? Learn how to identify furniture eras of the past


Christopher DeVargas

Antique Mall of America

If you’re familiar with Antiques Roadshow, you’re aware that recognizing telltale design characteristics can help you classify heirlooms from long ago. On the show, experts appraise items brought by patrons who hope that Grandma’s family teapot is worth a pretty penny. Much of what is assessed can be classified as old junk, but every once in a while, a look at history and a small fortune is discovered in an unsuspecting artifact. For do-it-yourself furniture hunters with a soft spot for thrifting and refurbing, here are a few antique eras to keep an eye out for and the characteristics that define them.

1690-1730: William and Mary

Named for English King William of Orange and his wife, Mary

• Practical and sturdy; crisp lines; facades decorated with walnut or maple grains framed by inlaid bands; exaggerated moldings and turnings; C-scrolls; round or oval feet

• Common woods: Maple, walnut, white pine, southern yellow pine

1720-1760: Queen Anne

• Delicate, graceful curves; cabriole legs; claw-and-ball feet; figured veneers; mortise and tenon joints; lacquered furniture in reds, greens and gilt

• Common woods: Walnut, poplar, cherry, maple. Japanned decoration tends to be in red, green and gilt, often on a blue-green field.

• New furniture form: Tilting tea table

1720-1830: Pennsylvania Dutch

• Heavy German influences

• Simple and utilitarian; colorful hand-painted scenes; straight lines; simple turnings; tapered legs

• Common woods: Walnut, oak, pine

1755-1790: Chippendale

• Named for English cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale

• Gothic arches; Chinese fretwork; carved foliage and scallop shells; straight legs; columns; C-scrolls and S-scrolls

• Common woods: Mahogany, walnut, maple, cherry

• New furniture form: Card table with five legs

1790-1810: Sheraton

• Named for English designer Thomas Sheraton

• Similar to Federal but straighter lines and more conservative carvings; rich upholstery; intricate brass hardware; dovetail joints

• Common woods: Mahogany, maple, pine

1790-1815: Federal

• Balanced, symmetric and elegant; ornamental inlays and contrasting veneer borders; fluting; straight and tapered legs; thin cushions on seats; brass hardware in shapes from nature

• Common woods: Mahogany, maple, birch, satinwood

• New furniture forms: Sideboard, worktable

1805-1830: American Empire

• French, Greek and Egyptian influences; patriotic motifs, such as eagles with spread wings; gilt highlights; ebony and maple inlays; brass ormolu mountings; chunky, swept legs; curved arms; ornamental feet carved to look like paws or claws; supporting corner columns; glass panels

• Common woods: Mahogany, mahogany painted black, dark woods

• New furniture forms: Sleigh bed, sofa table

1820-1860: Shaker

Named for the religious movement of the time

• Minimalist designs; clean lines; tapered legs; basic turned wooden knobs; visible locking joinery; woven or cane seats

• Common woods: Pine, maple, ash, birch, poplar

1830-1850: French Restoration

• The most plain of the Victorian styles

• Sweeping lines with undulating curves; delicate profiles; arched chair backs; concave crest rails; bolster pillows and upholstery

• Common woods: Ash, elm, bird's eye maple, olive, acacia

1830-1910: Victorian

• Formal, elaborate and opulent; needlepoint and tapestry adornings; heavy proportions and fabrics; intricate carvings of flowers, vines, ribbons and bows; balloon backs; deep, low seats; low arms or armless chairs

• Common woods: Black walnut, oak, maple, ash, rosewood

• New invention: Coiled spring

1840-1860: Gothic Revival

• Turrets, pointed arches, quatrefoils and other detailed carved ornamentation; mechanical parts; dark stains; rich upholstery in leather, velvet and brocade; lathe-turned arms and legs; oval-shaped chair backs with square seats

• Common woods: Walnut, oak, mahogany, rosewood

1845-1870: Rococo Revival

Scrolls and carved decorations, particularly roses; cabriole legs; marble tabletops; cast-iron elements; tufted upholstery with interior springs

• Common woods: Walnut, rosewood, mahogany

1850-1914: Louis XVI

• Straight lines adorned with ovals and arches; symmetric, parallel borders; medallions, wreaths, garlands, urns and other Victorian flourishes; fluted or slightly tapered legs; pastel colors

• Common woods: Ebony, rosewood, cherry, walnut

1850-1914: Naturalistic

• Highly-detailed natural motifs such as fruits, flowers and leaves; laminated planks to create the illusion of carving; tufted upholstery

• Common woods: Mahogany, walnut, rosewood

• New invention: Laminated wood

• Fun Fact: So much detail was included in carved leaves on naturalistic pieces, many patrons could identify the specific type of plant from the design.

1850-1915: Elizabethan

• Feminine; carved and painted flowers; high, narrow chair backs with a slight backward tilt; spindle-turned, bulbous legs; needlework upholstery and decoratively painted surfaces

• Common woods: Oak, walnut

• New invention: Court cupboard for holding plates and utensils

1895-1915: Arts and Crafts

• Also known as Mission, influencers include the Stickley brothers and Frank Lloyd Wright

• Heavy and substantial but well proportioned; simple and focused on craftsmanship; straight legs; small or absent feet; natural, fumed or painted finishes; leather upholstery; copper hardware; silver, copper and abalone inlays

• Common wood: Oak

1920-1945: Art Deco

• Crisp lines; controlled curves; straight or slightly tapered legs; extremely low or extremely high chair backs; mortise and tenon joinery; geometric shapes; bold colors and strong contrasts; vinyl upholstery;• metallic finishes; glass, steel and lacquered accents

• Common woods: Oak, cherry

• New invention: Cocktail table

• Fun fact: The Chrysler Building in New York City is a prime example of Art Deco architecture and reflects the same straight lines and gentle curves found in the furniture of the time.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.