Symmetry and Pairs
in Federal Period Furniture Design
By the late eighteenth century in America, the neoclassical style in furniture and other decorative arts began to prevail. Neoclassicism arose initially in England mid-century then spread to the continent before reaching America. It was basically a revival of styles that originated in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt as interpreted by the English architect Robert Adams and designers Thomas Hope, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton among others. It is characterized by strong linearity and lightness in contrast to the earlier heavier and more ornate rococo and baroque periods. It followed from the rational scientific principles of the Enlightenment.
Another key characteristic of this approach is symmetry, the balancing of elements. Imagine an axis drawn through the middle of a design. Are the two halves the same? Are they mirror images of each other? If they are we can refer to the design as being symmetrical.
Monticello, designed by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s, is an ideal example of symmetry in the neoclassical style. Architecturally, both the building's exterior and interior are in perfect balance. Draw that line down the middle and see how the two halves match perfectly to achieve an extraordinary sense of balance.
Symmetry in Interior Decoration
How does the element of symmetry manifest itself in the interior decoration of the Federal American Period home? (All of the following illustrations of decorative arts are from our inventory and complete information on them is available on our web site: www.ArtemisAntiques.com).
This beautiful mahogany sideboard in the Hepplewhite style was made in New York City in the 1790s. If you were standing five feet in front of it you would be struck by all of the elements of symmetry in its design. Focus on the center front doors below. What kind of symmetry is this? If you took the left door off and moved it over the right one, would it match perfectly? The answer is no. But imagine that you could cut the left door veneer in half along its smallest dimension and then peeled it back, as if you were opening a book. Now it matches perfectly. This is called mirror image symmetry. You would get the same effect if you placed a mirror in the center and reflected the left door onto the right door. This is important for two reasons. First it is a great design element that makes the sideboard more visually appealing. It also tells you that the maker was not only very skilled but acutely aware of design. Second it is a mark of authenticity. If the veneers don't match symmetrically there is a good chance that either the cabinetmaker was not very competent or that, more likely, a veneer panel has been replaced.
We can see symmetry in the sideboard because it is a piece of significant dimension. There was another way that symmetry was achieved in interior design in this period and that was by making matched pairs of smaller dimension pieces.
Symmetry through Matched Pairs
Pairs of furniture were quite rare earlier in the eighteenth century primarily because there weren't homes large enough to display them. But with a great increase in the number of wealthy families after the war in the Federal Period, there was now the necessary space. It is easy to imagine a pair of pier tables on either side of a large window in a main room, a pair of serving tables in a large dining room or a pair of card tables on either side of a doorway into almost any room. The card tables above were made in Portsmouth, New Hampshire around 1800-1805 in the Sheraton style. Note the dramatic matched veneers and all other design elements, lots of symmetry here.
An important note: there are "exact" pairs and there are "assembled" pairs. Exact pairs were made to go together and were produced at the same time in the same shop from the same woods. Assembled pairs were simply made in the same shop usually at different times.They are close but not exactly identical in all details. It is easy to tell the difference. Put the two pieces back to back or alongside each other. Do the veneers look like they were cut from the same flitch in order or are the grains different? If they have original brasses, are they identical? Are all of the construction details including dimensions exactly the same? The reason this is important is that exact pairs are worth much more than assembled pairs. We have watched people overpay at auction for pairs of card tables that really weren’t pairs at all.
The wealthy built homes for the first time with very high ceilings which necessitated having pairs of mirrors to place over the pairs of tables. Unfortunately these pairs rarely survived together in good shape so any pairs of mirrors are highly prized. This pair is only the third we have had in over 30 years!
Although we have seen a good number of pairs of card tables over the years, this is the only pair of pembrokes that we know of. They are of the highest quality and were made in New York City circa 1800. Their aprons are veneered with the rare wood known as casuarina or lacewood which was first discovered in Australia in 1796 and exported to America.
This pair of gilt eagle wall brackets is the only one we have ever owned. They are period circa 1790s with original gilt surface.
From Classical Boston circa 1820 here are an assembled pair of sewing tables and an exact pair of upholstered mahogany stools.
Pairs of chairs are not uncommon in the Federal Period. These two illustrations span the entire period. The pair on the left was made in the earliest Hepplewhite style circa 1790s in Massachusetts while the one on the right was made by Duncan Phyfe in New York City circa 1830s.
Here is a very desirable small size Boston neoclassical settee circa 1820s. We acquired the one on the left and had it polished and upholstered.
Several years later we acquired the one on the right. It is pictured in its as-found condition. Although they cannot be an exact pair they are exactly identical in all respects.
We finish this discussion with examples of pairs of classical lighting (argands) and ceramics (Chinese export made for the American market and Tucker porcelain from Philadelphia).
So you can see that symmetry, and what it leads to, producing pairs of decorative objects, is one of the hallmarks of Neoclassicism in the American Federal Period. The next time you pass a sofa or a doorway or a bed in your home, think how flanking it with a pair of tables, etc. might really enhance it by creating great design.