Furniture fit for an Empire

AMERICANS have a knack for not leaving well enough alone. Change is the name of the game even when what was introduced last year was admired, wanted, purchased, and a better product. In fact, the zest for change may be an American tradition. Take furniture, for example. Even a superficial look at a single style as it developed through the years can be baffling. The saga of the Empire style may be typical. There was nothing new about incorporating classical influences within furniture designs; that is, until Napoleon came to power in France in 1804. During earlier military campaigns, he had been impressed by the symbols of Egypt's once-thriving civilization. He also regarded art as an expression of the glory of the country. So what better than to combine the two in one glorious burst of design.

The ``Empire''-style furniture that resulted was fairly heavy, curved, and scrolled. Most significantly - and probably because of Napoleon's personal taste - it was richly embellished with classical allusions. Mythological themes, zoomorphic gods, representations of beasts discovered on ancient vase paintings, scarabs, and sphinxes were stunningly delineated by the generous use of ormolu mountings and other lavish guises of gold.

Napoleon filled his palace with the classically inspired furniture. And, as can be expected, the rich people of the land, eager to emulate their new leader, redecorated old royal ch^ateaux in the Empire style favored by their emperor. (The style also caught on in England where it was called ``Regency.'')

In the United States, as a new democracy in a land full of myriad opportunities, the monied people admired the opulence of the Empire style. The young country was thriving, and prosperity was becoming a more widely familiar experience. It seemed the proper step toward status for the rich to take their cues - in both the slim, high-waisted fashions and gold-encrusted furnishings - from the French haut monde.

Soon, the cabinetmakers, especially along the Eastern Seaboard, were turning out furnishings in the Empire style. Duncan Phyfe, for example, who was one of the most prominent among late 18th- and early 19th-century makers, followed the dicta of the day. He abandoned the fine delicacy of his earlier work in favor of the French emperor's style that had been rushed across the Atlantic.

For the first few years, around 1815, the Empire-style furnishings that appeared in this country closely resembled those in France; although the exuberant American furnituremakers found it difficult to resist adding their own touches: a cornucopia motif, for one, or paw feet, or strongly carved eagles that might also have been a patriotic gesture.

In its original American-made version, the Empire style heightened the elegance of handsome rooms with high ceilings. The change began in the late 1820s. And by the late 1840s, visiting Frenchmen must have been hard put to recognize the regal beauty created at the start of their emperor's reign.

During this period, too, many other changes were taking place in the United States. Two of the most significant advances went hand in hand. Steam-operated machine manufacturing methods were introduced in the early 1830s that displaced the techniques of the cabinetmakers and, instead, offered mass-produced products at lower cost. There were also the growing number of wealthy people who, along with a nascent middle class, demanded a vast selection of material.

Larger houses were constructed. More furnishings began to fill the houses. And, as though in anticipation of the later Victorian fervor for fuss, even more decorations were added to the houses and to the furnishings. The Empire style was swept along with the trend.

Thanks to the versatility of the machine, it was relatively easy to submerge the Empire style beneath the bulk of the coming era that would have as its credo ``More is better.'' Already-large pieces, such as chests and tables, were further enlarged into ponderous proportions. Veneers waved over surfaces. The carvings of foliage and flowers, which identified the rococo style, became prominent.

To retain the early Empire flavor, wooden chair backs were frequently curved. Gold stenciled decorations were used. The lionlike paw feet were retained but enlarged, sometimes with the addition metal ball bases. And massive S- and C-shaped scrolls, reminiscent of the original American-made Empire style, were now cut by bandsaws as accents for chair and sofa arms and to form the bases of upholstered stools.

The Empire style was changed while it was carried forward in what is now referred to as a transitional style or ``late Empire.'' It was an early attempt to satisfy customers who continued to regard the splendidly curved and classically adorned furnishings of previous decades as the epitome of taste.

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