The Federal Era dates from 1790 to 1830 and follows the victorious end of the Revolutionary War. The United States, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, sought an architectural style that would define its new role as an independent, democratic republic.
Architects Benjamin Latrobe from the United States and Robert Adam of Britain traveled to the ruins of classical Greece and democratic Rome. The discovery of Pompeii and the commencement of its excavation in 1754 shot waves of excitement through Europe and America, stirring interest in ancient, classical design.
Latrobe measured the Parthenon and brought back drawings for our new public architecture. Adam copied architectural details and translated them into exterior and interior details, furniture and window treatment designs, inlaid floor patterns, woven carpets and even the famous Jasperware produced by Josiah Wedgewood.
In addition, English cabinetmakers George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton developed delicate and gracious furniture upholstered in smooth, lustrous fabrics. These patterns and designs were printed in books and circulated to the New World where they were eagerly sought and their styles duplicated.
Highlights of the Federal Era (known as Neoclassic in France and Classic Revival/Late Georgian in England) include:
•Colors. Pastel hues with names such as Wedgewood blue, warm coral pink, creamy sage, French lilac, Pompadour blue, DuBerry red (richer hues), Adam green (a livelier, almost spring green), Federal blue (powder or baby blue today), pure gray and creamy yellow. These often were trimmed or accented with white or cream.
•Patterns and textures. Fine stripes, honeysuckle, floral swags or festoons, columns with climbing, encircling vines, vases or urns and other classical details. The oval patterae was seen in many configurations from fanlights to mantelpiece corner blocks to drawer pulls. Plain satin-like finishes on cotton or silk, semi-sheers with printed or woven designs, damask and brocade were primary textures.
•Window treatments. Either balanced symmetrical draperies straight or tied back to look like columns, or asymmetrical draperies. Valances with groups of three rounded pleats and flat spacing between imitated the frieze on the Parthenon. Delicate festoons, sometimes over the top of flat or shaped pelments. Cascades often stacked and narrow. Delicate, shaped ties on the tiebacks, small scale fringe.
•Floors and walls. Wood floors, sometimes stenciled, broadloom carpet or area rugs in classical motifs. Inlaid stone (marble) in nonresidential settings. Some pattern was used on the walls, often in delicate designs or borders such as Greek key fretwork. Adam fireplaces are the most beautiful wall component of the period, with three blocks along the front. The middle block projecting outward, and corner blocks atop pilaster-like legs and carefully detailed with classical (Greco-Roman) motifs.
•Furniture. Sheraton and Hepple-white chairs, slender proportions, oval or square backs, bow-back settees, casepieces inspired by ovals, delicate inlaid marquetry and upholstered pieces with smooth textures in classical patterns.
The Empire Style
The Empire style overlaps the Federal Era and dates from 1820 to 1860. The period is officially known as Greek Revival, which was the exterior architectural style of the period. The interiors, however, are known as American Empire. Overall, this style has become more popular than Federal today, inspiring the designs of countless contemporary traditional interiors.
Fewer architects made their marks during this period; rather, everything was adapted to look Empire -- some done well, some very poorly. The most notable cabinetmaker was Englishman Duncan Phyfe, whose Regency designs are described below under furniture.
Napoleon Bonaparte of France claimed much of the credit for the unique Empire style, although a veritable army of artisans did the behind-the-scenes work to create it. Napoleon acted as a Roman emperor would and used draped fabric and Roman motifs freely. His personal tastes are seen in building interiors, furniture, fabrics, colors and all architectural detail.
The Empire style developed in America about the same time as the Victorian era. Both enjoyed a display of vivid design, sometimes refined, sometimes overwhelming, but both rich and fearless.
In general, the Empire style used strong, bold forms and furnishings similar to those Napoleon himself would have used and looked like a revival of classical Rome. Specifically, the components of this style, which continue in adapted forms today, include:
•Colors. Two palettes existed side-by-side -- one strong and powerful, the other muted and subdued. The strong colors included Imperial red (rich orange-cast red), Empire green (a deep kelly green), Napoleonic gold (rich, clear), Imperial purple (the color for royalty), tobacco brown (medium value, lustrous).
Fireplaces were painted black then streaked with white to imitate white marble, thus increasing the drama of the interior. In the White House the Red Room and the Green Room are prime examples of the Empire style.
Softer versions of these intense colors were preferred by some who felt subtle hues were easier to live with. Known by today's names, these hues include mauve (faded Imperial red), sage green (neutralized Empire green), a spun honey gold (paler than Napoleonic gold), and gray violet (representing a dull version of Imperial purple).
•Patterns and textures. Stripes were very important during the Empire period, and they became broad and bold sometimes with tiny stripes between the wide ones. Stripes allowed strong, vibrant colors to be used side-by-side for intense visual impact. Where the pale palette was used, stripes may have been blended.
Plain, smooth satin-weave backgrounds provided dramatic contrast to printed or brocaded designs from classical Greece and Rome. Especially popular were isolated, floating motifs such as the laurel wreath, griffiths, the swag and cascade shape and urns. Plain satin was used often also.
•Window treatments. Long draperies were the order of the day, and they were seen as pairs of asymmetrical panels. Drapery pairs often were operable as traverse hardware became available during this era. Stationary panels may have puddled on the floor, but not always.
Asymmetry was in vogue, and draperies took on the look of a Roman toga, often draped across the entire window and tied back on one side with ropes and tassels, or draped over metal tieback holders much as in similar treatments today. Layers of fabric were in fashion: semi-sheers beneath and decorative fabric on top, or the treatment might be plain and printed semi-sheer fabrics layered in a sensuous but sophisticated manner.
Top treatments were not always seen because of the hardware that became popular. However, when top treatments were used they were lavish with deep folds, sometimes even heavy and ponderous. Long cascades, or those with pendant-like points, also were important.
Passementerie reached a zenith in scale and importance in this style. Fringe was used extensively, and beaded, complex, long fringe was especially important as were large scale tassels and ropes.
•Floors and walls. Broadloom carpeting became widely available in strong colors and geometric designs, although some Oriental and French rugs were still used in many rooms. Marble floors, or floor cloths painted or stenciled (with Greek key fretwork, for example) were popular.
Walls often were covered with wallpaper, everything from murals of distant times and places to architectural or faux stone designs. Marbleizing and other faux paint techniques were popular. Floral wall coverings were used in rooms that began to be influenced by the Victorian era, or which held a carry-over preference for Late Georgian florals (floral patterns are not strictly a part of this era).
Moldings became very deep and sometimes quite elaborate. Cast plaster anaglypta, or decorative detailing, were frequently used on walls and ceilings. Doorways were trimmed with fluted moldings on tall baseboard blocks and round medallion corner blocks on the top corners. Moldings often were trimmed in violet-tinted gray. It was a look that does not have much appeal today; white is much more popular today.
•Furniture. There were two styles of furniture during the American Empire period:
1. American Empire -- the heavy, masculine, and commanding pieces -- many of which are very popular today as adapted Beidermeier or European Empire-inspired furniture lines. Many of these original pieces were gaudy and very heavy in scale and ornamentation.
2. The Regency pieces designed by Duncan Phyfe and others show refined curves as seen in tables and chairs with splayed (curved outward) legs and scrolled, turned backs evoking Grecian elegance.
Adapting These Styles Today
Both Federal (neoclassic) and Empire styles are very much at home in America today, and like the Early and Late Georgian Era pieces they can be harmoniously blended for successful decorating. For example, strong colors can be used in rooms where furniture is more delicately Federal, or Empire furniture used with softer colors can be received equally well. Mixing the styles of furniture in rooms where the color unites the scheme can be very successful.
Window treatments today also are heavily influenced by the Federal and Empire styles. Asymmetrical treatments, or those in pairs that puddle on the floor, and sheer or elaborate fabrics are inspired by this era. These looks are on the cutting edge of today's interior fashions.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, IDEC, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.