Hepplewhite Style Furniture

Learning About Antiques from the Federal Period

George III style mahogany Hepplewhite chair, ca 1770-1780. United Kingdom, 18th century.
George III style mahogany Hepplewhite chair, ca 1770-1780. De Agostini Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Named after London designer and cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite (?-1768), whose The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide was published posthumously by his wife Alice in 1788, Hepplewhite furniture dates from about 1780-1810. It is a neoclassic style and falls within the Federal period in the United States.

Hepplewhite style often overlaps with that of British designer Thomas Sheraton, whose 1791 guidebook, like Hepplewhite's, documented popular furniture designs of the day.

However, the slightly older Hepplewhite style tends to be more ornate, with substantial carving and curvilinear shapes in comparison to Sheraton style. Considered "city furniture," Hepplewhite was especially popular in early American states along the Eastern Seaboard, from New England to the Carolinas.

Woods Used in Hepplewhite Style Pieces 

Because Hepplewhite furniture is characterized by contrasting veneers and inlays (also known as marquetry) depicting seashells or bell flowers, pieces often contain more than one type of wood. For the base, mahogany was most often the wood of choice, but satinwood and maple were also popular.

Other woods include sycamore (especially common for the aforementioned veneers), tulipwood, birch, and rosewood. Since those crafting these pieces frequently used the local woods at hand, American versions of Hepplewhite's designs can be made of ash or pine as well.

Hepplewhite Style Legs and Feet

In contrast to the popular curving cabriole legs of earlier styles such as Queen Anne and Chippendale, Hepplewhite pieces usually have straight legs. These can be square or tapered, and often have reeded or fluted edges. They were designed to imitate Classical columns of Greek and Roman architecture.

Some chairs and sofas have H-stretchers, which are reinforcing pieces of wood that connect the legs to form the shape of an H.

Complementing the plain, straight legs of a chair or table, Hepplewhite-style feet are usually simple. They usually take the shape of a rectangular spade foot or a tapered arrow foot. Bracket feet, however, are more common on larger, heavier case pieces, such as chests, desks, and bookcases.

Other Hepplewhite Style Features

In addition to the characteristic plain legs and simple feet usually found on Hepplewhite style pieces, look for these features:

  • Hepplewhite furniture is known for its graceful, delicate appearance. It is especially light in comparison to earlier Queen Anne and Chippendale styles.

  • Pieces are embellished with small carvings or painted designs, along with intricate inlaid patterns and veneers, often in woods of contrasting colors (known as marquetry).

  • Common decorative motifs include graceful swags, curling ribbons, feathers, Classical urns, and trees. These elements often reflected the popularity of neoclassical styles during the period.

  • Hepplewhite introduced tambours into furniture design. Tambours, narrow vertical strips of wood glued to a heavy background cloth, that served as elegant covers for the cubbyholes that hid writing supplies and the like. They are similar to elements used on later "roll-top" on desks. 

  • Pieces have simple geometric shapes, usually curved or circular. Sofa and chair arms curve outward, seats have rounded fronts, and chair backs are usually shaped like ovals or shields. The shield-back chair (see photo above) is perhaps the best-known of all Hepplewhite styles.

  • Hepplewhite is credited with popularizing the sideboard and the short chest of drawers. His designs for these pieces typically feature serpentine or bow-shaped fronts. These were new forms of furniture in his day, according to American Furniture: 1620 to the Present, by Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bidwell Bates. 

Later Hepplewhite Styles

British furniture manufacturers began reviving Hepplewhite designs in the 1880s. Though they are themselves antiques now, the construction is usually not as solid as that found in older pieces nor is the decoration quite as finely detailed in these mass-produced reproductions.

 

The Kittinger Furniture Company of Buffalo, New York became known for its faithful Hepplewhite reproductions in the 1920s and 1930s as well. Made of high-quality woods, some of these pieces have become collectibles in their own right. Take care not to confuse these reproductions with older, and more valuable, period pieces.

In a sense, Hepplewhite furniture has never gone out of style. Recognizable features such as the shield back, fluted legs, and the serpentine front remain standard in traditional furniture design. These pieces are often considered to be classics that easily fit in with a variety of decorating styles.