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Thomas Chippendale: Self-Made Man

Thomas Chippendale’s story of entrepreneurship arrives at the Met.

China table, England, circa 1755-60

China table, England, circa 1755-60, mahogany, overall: 28.25 x 37.75 x 26.5 in.;

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The world of 18th-century cabinetmaking is perhaps not the first place one would think to look for a story of ambitious self-promotion and successful entrepreneurship. And yet, that’s exactly what is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this season in the exhibition Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture-Maker. On view through January 27, 2019, the show will feature original Thomas Chippendale drawings alongside furniture, from a range of eras, inspired by Chippendale’s designs.

Chippendale was a London-based cabinetmaker who became one of the most influential furniture designers of his time. In fact, he was so influential that his designs were still being looked to for inspiration as recently as the 1980s. His designs were largely inspired by the ornate French Rococo tradition, which he anglicized—in other words, toned down—to appeal to his fellow countrymen and women. He also created designs inspired by both the Gothic and Chinese traditions, although his English Rococo designs remain the best known.

One major reason for Chippendale’s huge influence on Western furniture design is that he took a bold and unusual step in order to promote his cabinetmaking business. He wrote, published, and disseminated a groundbreaking book of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Released in 1754, the book featured 160 designs for chairs, tables, beds, and other furniture, showcasing Chippendale’s skill as a designer as well as establishing him as an authority in the design world. The Director was a first of its kind—a manual for the middle and monied classes that helped define “good taste,” as well as a hugely successful marketing campaign.

The book is the entry point for the current exhibition. Visitors entering the galleries will first view the Met’s first-edition copy of the Director, alongside three Chippendale chairs from different eras: one from Chippendale’s own London workshop, one made for a wealthy Philadelphia merchant by colonial American craftsmen in 1769, and one created by the influential present-day architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The range, in both geography and time, speaks to a core point of the show.

“We wanted to show how deeply the Director impacted the rest of the Western world,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Alyce Englund, Associate Curator of the Met’s American Wing. “This book truly presented Chippendale as an authority on design, placing him in the sphere of designers operating on the continent.” While the book itself is remarkable, both for the quality of its designs and for being the first of its kind, the circumstances of its production are no less impressive. “What’s amazing about this book is that Chippendale produces it when he’s 36, and he’s already got lots of responsibilities,” Englund says. The cabinetmaker had several children by this time, and he’d taken out debt to finance his new workshop. Chippendale needed to do something that would make people come to his shop instead of to one of the hundreds of other cabinetmakers’ shops in London. Creating the Director was a major endeavor—and one that could easily have failed.

Of course, it didn’t fail. In addition to promoting Chippendale’s designs, the book also helped establish a truly British style of decorative arts that could compete with, but also converse with, styles from continental Europe. While many people may have seen Chippendale furniture—or at least replicas of Chippendale furniture—few will have seen the original drawings that will are part of this show. The Met acquired one of the largest collections of Chippendale drawings in 1920, but these are rarely on view. “They’re kept in albums and are really hard to display,” says co-curator Femke Speelburg, Associate Curator, Drawings and Prints. “This is the first time since the Met has owned them that we’ve decided to take them out of the albums to display on the gallery walls.”

The drawings that will be on view preceded many of the actual furniture pieces we know as Chippendale, as most of them were done in preparation for the book. They’re significant for another reason, as well. “These drawings help tell the story of this man who was an entrepreneur, a cabinetmaker—and he could draw,” Speelburg says. “For a long time, scholars thought Chippendale hired someone to do these; they didn’t think someone who was a furniture maker could also make these beautiful drawings.”

Together, the furniture and works on paper on view at the Met will offer viewers a more comprehensive, more nuanced understanding of the famous cabinetmaker’s legacy than many may have had before. “Chippendale was an extraordinarily talented designer, but he also had this great business sense,” says Englund. “And he was a very talented craftsman.” That’s what it takes, it seems, for a design tradition to endure for 300 years.

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2018

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