Thomas Chippendale was born in Otley, Yorkshire, 1718 and died in London in 1779.
Chippendale was an only child, born into a family of Yorkshire carpenters. Details of his early career are unknown but in 1748, aged 30, he moved to London where he set up as a cabinet-maker, married and had a large family.
In 1754 he published The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, a pattern book that was to secure his position as one of the most eminent cabinet-makers of the 18th century. Chippendale’s workshop was on St Martins Lane, the newly fashionable centre of the furniture making trade in London. From there he undertook many large-scale furnishing projects for grand houses throughout Britain.
In the 18th century there was an increasing demand for luxury goods. Chippendale’s Director provided for this market with 160 engravings of fashionable furniture designs.
Published by subscription, The Director was an instant success. It was reissued in 1755, and again in 1762 with additional plates in the new Neo-classical style. Subscribers included aristocrats and cabinet-makers. Shrewd publicity brought Chippendale many lucrative commissions. His firm supplied all manner of furnishings and household equipment.
So influential were his designs, in Britain and throughout Europe and America, that ‘Chippendale’ became a shorthand description for any furniture similar to his Director designs.
Furniture designs had been occasionally published before 1754, but Chippendale’s Director was the first publication on such a large scale. It included designs in the ‘Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste’ – the last meaning French Rococo style.
Not all furniture supplied by Chippendale exactly followed his published designs. Many were simpler pieces for bedrooms and private spaces. Patrons could also combine Director elements to create bespoke commissions. For Dumfries House in 1759 only 12 of the 50 items ordered came from The Director.
Despite his success, Chippendale never received a significant royal commission, unlike some of the other cabinet-makers in St Martin’s Lane.
Chippendale’s business grew quickly. By 1755 his workforce comprised 40–50 artisans, including cabinet-makers, upholsterers and carvers. Chippendale would not have made furniture himself – or even managed the workshop. His role probably involved making designs, cultivating clients and promoting the business.
Cash flow was a constant problem as clients rarely paid promptly. Chippendale went into partnership with the wealthy Scottish merchant James Rannie and later the accountant Thomas Haig. Their business acumen complemented Chippendale’s entrepreneurial flair. In 1776, Chippendale’s son, also Thomas (1749–1822), took over the firm. Continuing financial difficulties and then Haig’s death led to closure in 1804.