This summer I had an opportunity to learn a new language. I had a commission to make a set of 3 tables for a unique setting—the Kansas Chapel in the DAR Headquarters building in Washington, DC. The space is formal, lots of marble, neo-classical architecture. It is right across the street from the White House. I needed a furniture style that could hold its own, that would look like it belonged, not just visiting. The answer that seemed to fit the bill was American Empire.
American Empire furniture developed in the early to mid-1800’s. The popularity of the style reflected a sense of national power, cultural refinement, and wealth. It was inspired by French Empire furniture and incorporates classical elements like egg-and-dart or Greek key motifs, columns, acanthus carvings, scrolls, and animal paw feet.
My crash course in this design language started with looking at lots of examples of American Empire furniture. I looked for key elements, variations, and arrangement. I acquired a new vocabulary with words like—entasis (the proper taper of columns), triptych (the groupings of threes on temple friezes), and echinus (the curved part at the top of a column). One of the things that I quickly learned is that classical design is not free-form. The literature on classical orders (Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, Tuscan) is deeply connected to proportion and balance. People spent a lot of time measuring classical ruins to try and discover the “secrets” of perfect design. With American Empire there is also a “look-and-feel” to the sweeping curves and the masses of the parts and pieces.
I managed to craft three complementary tables for this project in this new language. However I am acutely aware of my limited fluency. American Empire is really an exciting style that offers a lot of possibilities and I am looking forward to trying it out again on future projects.