Canadian Woodworking

Furniture styles – historical overview

Author: Michel Theriault
Published: February March 2004
furniture styles
furniture styles

Understanding furniture styles can help you bring your woodworking to the next level by providing insight into what makes furniture look good.


Whether you design your own projects or make them from plans, recognizing the elements that make up a particular style will enable you to improve your designs, select plans that incorporate known styles, or even modify existing plans to incorporate the elements of certain styles.


Even though styles and periods are usually defined by dates, furniture styles themselves don’t abruptly change. They evolve from one to another, with many overlapping characteristics. As a result, timelines should be taken as a reference only.

The distinct styles are generally determined by the physical appearance of the furniture, including design elements, joinery, and materials. These are typically influenced by economics, materials, tools, craftsmen, society, and other design trends of the day.

As an example, during the colonization of America, there was strong desire to bring their home country’s styles to their new home. This, combined with the realities of limited resources, resulted in the adaptation of the style to match the ability, materials, tools, and resources of the colonial craftsman. As a result, this period is defined as “Colonial”.

The well known Shaker style is actually defined by the Shaker society, guided by their beliefs. The following quote from the Millenial Laws of 1845 gives us a glimpse into the basis of the Shaker style:

“Fancy articles of any kind, or articles which are superfluously finished, trimmed or ornamented are not suitable…”

Styles were named after master cabinetmakers who combined utility with artistic style; Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, and Robert Adams.

The design characteristics of each style are unique, however they often blend into each other and may borrow from each other. This is particularly apparent when you look at styles from around the world in conjunction with the increasing trade and globalization of the last two centuries.

Fortunately, there are a number of commonly known styles prevalent in America that provide a wide array of design elements to suit almost everyone’s taste.

This is the first in a series of articles on Furniture Styles. Watch for future issues to learn about: Colonial, Chippendale, Shaker, Sheraton, Mission, and Victorian.

The dates given for styles and many periods are approximate, since they usually can’t be defined by specific dates. As a result, you will often see slightly different dates identified in different references.

Here are some typical timelines

1620 – 1780  Colonial

1780 – 1800  Federal

1820 – 1860  Shaker

1880 – 1900  Arts & Crafts

1900 – 1920  Mission

1920 – 1940  Art Deco

1949 –           Modern

Periods and Styles

Periods and styles are not the same thing. Generally, periods are defined by events, or in the case of England, sometimes by the reign of their Monarchs.

Here is an example of two American periods and their related styles:

Colonial Period

Jacobean  1620 – 1720

Queen Anne  1720 – 1750

Chippendale  1750 – 1780

Federal Period

Hepplewhite  1780 – 1800

Sheraton  1790 – 1810

Classical  1810 – 1820

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