Chippendale’s Director


Insta Chippendale’s Director:
Steve Bisco looks at the man and the book that transformed 18th-century cabinetmaking and carved ornament.

Chippendale’s Director contains 200 pages of designs for fine furniture and carved ornament, much of it in ‘the French taste’, which we now call Rococo

This year sees the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest names in woodworking history – Thomas Chippendale. He was born in Otley, Yorkshire in June 1718, the son of a cabinetmaker. As he grew up he became a cabinetmaker himself, and also a master carver of outstanding talent. By the age of 31 he was living in London and in 1754, at the age of 36, he had set up his business at 60-62 St Martin’s Lane, near where Leicester Square Underground Station is today. The outstanding quality of his furniture, mirrors and other items, and their extraordinary carved ornament, earned him a high reputation among the grandees of the early Georgian era. Orders flooded in from dukes and duchesses and all ranks of the aristocracy.
Chippendale set up the business in partnership with an upholsterer, James Rannie, who contributed much-needed finance and managed the upholstery and fabrics side of the business until his death in 1766. At its peak, the Chippendale workshop employed more than 20 craftsmen, including cabinetmakers and carvers as well as specialists in upholstery, gilding, lacquering, and making mirror glass, and as many apprentices, some of whom went on to establish their own businesses at home and abroad. Production of high-quality Chippendale-style furniture in Philadelphia, US, in the 18th century is likely to have been the work of ex-Chippendale craftsmen. 

Chippendale included many designs in ‘the Chinese style’, reflecting the popularity of Chinoiserie in the 18th century

As well as the high reputation of his furniture, which endures to the present day, Thomas Chippendale achieved lasting fame by producing what was effectively a ‘mail-order catalogue’ of his designs for furniture and furnishings called The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, known simply as Chippendale’s Director. The first edition was produced in 1754, with 161 plates (pages) of designs for cabinets, chairs, pier-glasses (large mirrors), girandoles (wall-mounted candle holders), ornately-carved bed canopies and crestings, picture frames, and many other items to furnish the grand houses of the aristocracy, nobility and gentry. A second edition was published in 1755, and in 1762 a revised and extended third edition with 200 beautifully engraved plates.
The majority of the designs were in what Chippendale called the ‘Modern style’ or ‘French taste’ that today we call Rococo or Louis XV style, with its serpentine curves and elaborate carving. This was the height of fashion in the early Georgian period but was starting becoming a little old-fashioned by the time the third edition was published.
There are also many designs in the ‘Chinese style’, later known as Chinoiserie. This was highly fashionable due to the influence of Chinese porcelain and other goods being imported from the Far East. Chippendale’s Chinese pieces are so highly regarded that Chinese Chippendale is considered a style in its own right. Chinoiserie is often associated with Rococo, and the Chinese ‘Ho-Ho bird’ appears in many of the Rococo designs in the Director.

The simpler Neo-Classical style was just coming into fashion when the Director was published, so there are only a few designs in this style

The Gothic style was still much in use for libraries, especially in colleges and ecclesiastical buildings, and the Director includes many examples of Gothic cabinets, chairs and tables. 18th-century Gothic (or Gothick) was much lighter in style than true Medieval Gothic.
There are only a few Neo-Classical designs in the Director as the style was just coming into fashion when the 1762 (third) edition was published. Chippendale started working with the celebrated architect Robert Adam in 1768 and thereafter worked mainly in the more restrained Neo-Classical style.
Chippendale was criticised by some craftsmen for the impracticality of many designs. Although the Director claimed to give ‘proper directions for executing the most difficult pieces’, the illustrations cannot be regarded as working drawings. For the heavily-carved pieces there is only the suggestion that ‘it would not be amiss if the whole was modelled before it is begun to be executed’. Chippendale would have expected a competent craftsman to be able to turn the designs into practical pieces, and he assured ‘all Noblemen, Gentlemen, or others, who will honour me with their Commands’ that they could have any design in the book made by ‘Their Most Obedient Servant, Thomas Chippendale’. 

The 18th-century version of Gothic was also popular and Chippendale included many Gothic designs in the Director

Some designs like this fantastical carved girandole (wall-mounted candle holder) led to complaints from other makers that they could not be made into practical pieces

Thomas died of tuberculosis in 1779 at the age of 61 and was buried in a churchyard that is now under the National Gallery. He had 11 children, the eldest of whom – also Thomas – continued the business from the same site until it gradually declined and went bankrupt in 1813. Chippendale furniture continues to achieve record-breaking prices at auction houses throughout the world. Most of the original drawings for the Director are now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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