Design icons: Thomas Chippendale and the catalogue


From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.

Thomas Chippendale was broadcast on the 20th August 2022. You can listen to the audio here.

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In 1754, a quiet revolution took place when Thomas Chippendale released a book of designs called ‘The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director’. It had 160 illustrations of all kinds of furniture, from a basic clothes press to a book cabinet elaborately inlaid and decorated. The designs followed the fashions of the time, everything from Gothic to Chinese, including a fanciful Rococo style he called Modern. While it served as a lavish catalogue of the broad range that Chippendale could manufacture in his London workshop, encouraging a new clientele, it was also used as inspiration for those who were looking for new ideas, rather as we flick through the pages of a home design magazine today. More generously, it was an invitation to other cabinetmakers to use it as the basis for their own furniture designs. After a modest release, it went through several editions, including one in French, popular not only in France but at Russia’s Imperial Court, spreading the fashion for what was seen as the English style.

This was not the first furniture catalogue produced by a cabinet maker: another, written in the 1740s, showed a meagre selection of beds, chairs and tables. The sheer abundance in Chippendale’s version lifted his work to another level. Its detailed illustrations were also a reflection of the progress made in commercial etching and printing techniques in the early eighteenth century. It inspired others in the trade to do the same. Like Thomas Sheraton, with ‘The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book’ of the 1790s, and George Hepplewhite’s ‘The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide’, published in 1788 after his death and promoted by his widow. These three men represented the peak of cabinet making, and reproductions of their designs remain an indicator of refined good taste still. They even inspired the form of a notable postmodern skyscraper, the AT&T Building in Manhattan designed in 1982 by Philip Johnson, its gabled roofline copying a Chippendale cabinet pediment.

The idea of using print to promote your trade wasn’t new. Publishers printed catalogues of their books as far back as the 1490s, and by the 1740s one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, had a catalogue of books that could be purchased ‘for ready money’ and sent out by post. Seed merchants used printed catalogues, too, and other companies began to see the value of them.

Mail-order brought the freedom of buying anything without having to actually visit the manufacturer’s showroom or shop, transforming trade around the world. It would prove a boon in the Gold Rushes of California and Australia, where everything from warehouses to community halls made from galvanised iron could be selected from a catalogue and shipped out from the various foundries in Britain. Some of these remain, like the iron houses in South Melbourne which are open to the public, remnants of a community of the hundred houses that were shipped there in the 1850s, and a portent of the prefabrication and flat-pack culture of the 20th century. Despite the bounty found online, the Australian love for catalogues persists today, with bundles of them crammed into mailboxes throughout the land each week. And in the old school world of cabinetry, the catalogue remains popular, with huge tomes listing everything from handles to hinges. You can even order mouldings and fittings in the Chippendale style, too. His influence remains, a maker of taste and a purveyor of ideas at the turn of a page.

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