When identifying the era of your furniture there are often factors to consider, this includes the aesthetic style, the craftsmanship and the variety of wood. This article on how to identify antique furniture will cover some of the most popular periods and the signs and features you may notice when investigating furniture in your care, or prior to the purchase of a new chair, table, cabinet or more unusual design. 

Chairs through time - how to identify antique furniture

Understanding the era and materials of your furniture is important, as it will help to dictate the way that it is cared for and acknowledge the unique vulnerabilities it may face due to age and design. Sometimes this may not be as obvious as you may assume, as an older piece which has survived for many centuries may in fact be more stable than a piece created at the turn of the 20th century – much of this depends on materials and the manufacturing process. 

19th century 20th century tables

We hope that this guide will assist you in caring for your furniture, as well as getting to know more about the era in which it was created.

Renaissance period: Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean 1509 – 1690

This 200 year period includes the rise of an artistic era dominated by the culture and design of the renaissance through to the beginning of the baroque. Whilst earlier Tudor designs are often crafted from solid wood and have a focus on the form above decorations, it was during the reign of Elizabeth I that British furniture can be defined as a specific decorative style which is set apart from the continental renaissance of the same period. Whilst the Italian and French styles of the era are still influential, we can see some charming characteristics which are predominantly found in 16th and 17th century British designs. 

Tudor Room FurnitureAbove: an example of a late renaissance living space recreated in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the oak panels date to 1600 

Early Tudor furniture veers more towards gothic aesthetics of preceding decades, with very few pieces created for the home. A typical Tudor home, even for those who were wealthy enough to afford such items, would not have more than bed stands, tables, or chests – there were no intricate pieces we may think of today such as fine cabinets and drawers. Chairs are very rare from this era and would more likely have been reserved for the lord of the manor, with benches and stools for guests. Tudor furniture is often a solid form with some carved decorations, such as a Gothic linenfold. The most obvious sign that your furniture is connected to the Tudors may appear in the form of a carved Tudor rose (a combined rose representing York and Lancaster).

16th century furniture design platesAbove: typical shapes and designs found in Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture, including legs and decorative carvings 

Unlike smooth and delicate continental features of the European renaissance, Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture tends to display more of a coarse and handcrafted appearance when it comes to decoration. The ornamental elements are predominantly gothic, but can also feature classical and heraldic details. These unique parts of the furniture design may include medallions, human features, floral and botanical elements, animals, or fruits. The extremities of Elizabethan furniture often have bulbous features, such as a rounded, barrel or acorn-like shape appearing halfway up the leg of a table, or rounded features covering the entire length, making them both sturdy and unique in their appearance.

Decoration 16th century furnitureAbove: a typical decoration found on a 16th century British oak stool

The most common type of wood in early British furniture is oak, due to its predominance and local cultivation. Whilst oak is naturally either a light beige or brown, it was often stained for a darker appearance. You may also find walnut furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as items with unique inlays from many more tree varieties. Due to the strength of oak, pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture survive today due to a strong resistance to rot and woodworm, their ongoing stability also shows a skill of craftsmanship from this period. 

Livery cupboardAbove: a 16th century oak livery cupboard from 1585

Popular furniture from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods include long dining or side tables, large chests, and an increasing amount of cabinets. The most famous examples are often four post beds with intricate designs, though most of these now reside in museums due to their cultural and artistic importance. 

Elizabethan Wooden Document BoxAbove: an Elizabethan document box from 1603 made from oak with various inlaid pieces

Whilst renaissance furniture is hundreds of years old, the surviving pieces have often remained intact due to their strong craftsmanship, timber and design techniques – however it is important that their environment (humidity and temperature control) and home care is maintained adequately by professional and knowledgeable skills to ensure longevity. 

17th century chairsAbove: a selection of early 17th century chairs, including a folding chair (far right)

Anglo-Dutch Baroque period: William & Mary, Queen Anne 1689 – 1755

This period displays more inspiration from European neighbours, especially that of the Dutch influence which came over with William of Orange in the 1680s. However, this Dutch preference was itself influenced by the French and the court of Louis XIV, making it a unique mixture of styles. This was compacted by the fact many French furniture designers found themselves in exile due to political changes in 1685, bringing to England their skill in Louis XVI designs – this included Daniel Marot, who came with William’s court – Marot’s work became a defining influence of the era.

William and Mary StyleAbove: a chair by Thomas Roberts in the style of Daniel Marot, 1689

Unlike the solid and less fluid designs of the Tudor and renaissance periods, William & Mary furniture sits more comfortably in an interior as we might expect today and focuses far more on exhibiting beauty above the pure functionality of the past. Many elements appear slimmer and curved or scrolled, such as chair legs. Upholstery is more commonplace, though sometimes just on the seat of a chair rather than the back, which remains solid or decorative carved wood. In this era there is also far more use of veneer work, marquetry and high shine finishes. 

William Queen Anne Style ChairsAbove: a selection of armchair designs from William and Mary through to Queen Anne

During the baroque period the types of different furniture became more vast and extravagant, it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that cabinet makers evolved their skills in making intricate designs with far more features. Under Queen Anne, cabinets were important new features of a home which could both display and keep safe ever-growing collections of porcelain.

Queen Anne Style Furniture PaintingAbove: from left to right – Queen Anne walnut dressing table, a painting depicting a lady sitting in a Queen Anne style chair, and an inlaid spice box from the same era made from walnut, poplar and ash

Oak is still a predominant timber used in this period, but many pieces may have been veneered or inlaid with different types to get decorative tones and effects. Pine and walnut were also popular, though many pieces would have been treated with a lacquer or stain for a shining finish. Not all lacquered pieces still have this bright appearance today due to their age, but this can be restored in our studio with traditional techniques. 

Queen Anne ChairsAbove: a chair, settee, and armchair in the Queen Anne Style

Heavily varnished or lacquer surfaces can cloud up due to contact with moisture, so it is important to only use wax or a dry cloth if you are uncertain of an item’s materials or vulnerabilities – it is also important to keep the relative humidity at an even level in the surrounding environment, not too dry and not too moist, around 40%-60%.

Wood VarnishingAbove: wood in our studio is stained and finished with era-appropriate and traditional treatments

Georgian period: Chippendale 1750 – 1790

During the Georgian period the influence of Thomas Chippendale is central to furniture design. Much of this period can come under the grand artistic genres of baroque and rococo, but later designs saw a reassurance of gothic features and even a Chinese inspiration. Thomas Chippendale published his book entitled ‘The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director’ in 1753 and this was culturally significant not only in British design, but also in Europe and North America – meaning that you may find very similar designs from vastly different locations. 

Chippendale Furniture ExamplesAbove: examples of Chippendale furniture with upholstery including an armchair, two side chairs and a fireplace screen, all dating to the 18th century

Chippendale furniture can be defined in a number of ways, a classic shape associated with such designs is in the cabriole legs (a bending line with one upper and lower curve) though over a span of changing fashion Chippendale can in fact be recognised with any of the following legs and feet: club, spade, lions paw, or ball and claw. Legs on later Chippendale furniture may appear more square. Most chairs in this style have silk upholstery (though this may have been updated and modernised over time) with backs that have a yoked shape. Finally, the back of a chair often has a delicate ribbon carving. 

Chippendale Designs 1750Above: a selection of chair designs by Thomas Chippendale from 1753 including armchairs with chinoiserie style upholstery

Mahogany is often the wood of choice for Chippendale furniture, but less costly timber and materials may have been used over time including maple, walnut and cherry. The ornate style of Chippendale can still be found in reproductions up to the modern day, meaning that identifying the era and age of the wood is important in understanding the history and delicacy of the piece. Mahogany is usually a defining factor of this, as well as the craftsmanship of older pieces which may differ from handcrafted techniques of the 18th century through to increasingly factory manufactured furniture from the 19th and 20th centuries. Later reproductions also seem to be stained to mimic the earlier mahogany timber, so looking on an untreated area or more closely at the woodgrain may help in identification. 

Chippendale CabinetAbove: a chest-on-chest of drawers in the Chippendale style mixing classical and natural decoration dating to 1770-75

The fine joinery of Chippendale furniture may be a weak point over time, loosening through heavy usage or slight warping due to atmospheric conditions. Breakages in Chippendale furniture can be treated by our professional team with era-appropriate repairs. If you have a highly valuable or rare piece of original Chippendale, we recommend that it is not used as an everyday item in the home and preserved for display value – especially if it has delicate or important upholstery. 

Furniture Antique Veneer MeasuringAbove: our furniture restoration specialist restoring a herringbone veneer detail to a bureau with Chippendale features

Regency period: Neoclassicism 1750 – 1820

Neoclassicism stemmed from an philosophically perfect idea of ancient Greece and Rome, encouraged by an ever-increasing interest in archeological finds such as the remains of Pompeii which were uncovered in 1748. The enlightenment across Europe also saw the rise of the printing press and easily accessible texts of classical antiquity which inspired both art and design. Neoclassicism can also be seen as a continuation of a dominant imperial culture, of which many royal families and members of the aristocracy saw themselves as a part of. During the Regency period this can be seen both in clothing and interior design – in some cases ancient Greek, Roman, or Egyptian furniture was reproduced as a pure copy or drew strong inspiration. 

Neoclassical FurnitureAbove: a selection of furniture in a neoclassical style, displaying aspects inspired by ancient cultures such as Greece and Egypt

Neoclassical furniture designs from the Regency period are far more simplistic than those of the earlier baroque or even the renaissance. Ancient ideas of perfect lines and shapes were important, encouraging craftsmen and designers to focus on the beauty of elegant, slim lines. Due to this there was also a decrease in the use of decorative elements and marquetry, besides hints to classical buildings such as ionic and doric columns or simple drapery.

Chippendale Dining ChairsAbove: a mahogany Chippendale dining chair from a set of fourteen in a neoclassical style, 1772

Although it is not strictly of the regency era, William IV furniture also features some neoclassical details, as seen on the legs of this William IV extender table which was restored in our studio below.

Stain French Polish Table RestorationAboev: a William IV extender table with neoclassical legs which was restored in our studio, seen here before, during and after restoration

The skill of french polishing became dominant at the beginning of the 19th century. Due to this, specialist varieties of timber could be used to produce unique and beautiful surfaces. In many instances timber was cultivated especially for a unique pattern, birds eye maple was extremely popular due to it’s speckled appearance which was further enhanced by French polish. Birds eye maple is created from a sugar maple, which has been purposely grown in shaded and unnatural conditions. This causes it to create constant new buds to reach sunlight, only to have them reabsorbed, leaving an unusual and much sought-after pattern. French polish may have deteriorated over the hundreds of years since it’s original application, leaving a dull and vulnerable surface – and veneers are extremely delicate when it comes to water damage and warping. If you spot these issues it is recommended that you get in touch with our team to discuss professional care. 

Above: our furniture expert applying French polish to the William IV table in our restoration studio

Victorian & Edwardian period: Modern Gothic and Arts & Crafts 1835 – 1910

With an evermore accessible market for furniture in not only high society homes, many pieces of the Victorian era may have been produced as purely functional and later in the period as easily manufactured pieces for a growing commercial market. Of the pieces which were decorative and an aesthetic part of a Victorian home, the influence of gothic revival is prevalent, followed by an interest in traditional techniques as opposed to industrial design in the arts and crafts movement. 

Victorian Chairs ExampleAbove: a selection of chairs from the Victorian period, as well as two advertisements from the era as furniture became more commercially available

During the 19th century revival also occurred in the popular use of oak, though you may also come across teak, satin birch, and pitch pine. More exotic woods from the rest of the world may have also been more easily accessible in this period. Some timber is telling of the new industrial age, as varieties such as pollard oak, which has a unique pattern due to fungus growth. Veneer work could only make use of pollard oak by using new cutting techniques made available by the industrial revolution. In some cases you may even find furniture created from papier-mache due to the use of specialist moulding equipment. 

Papier Mache Antique ChairsAbove: these 19th century chairs (centre) are created from papier-mache, decorative details shown on the left and right – papier-mache furniture is often highly lacquered

Modern gothic furniture can be determined through the use of angles and details reminiscent of medieval cathedrals, including high pointed angles. However, the Victorians had no single style as the change in fashions became more frequent and individual in taste. During this period you may also come across designs which copy some of the genres we have mentioned previously, including rococo and tudor revival. Therefore Victorian furniture may seem to throw you off at first due to mimicry, but a close look at the joinery and craftsmanship may point you in the right direction. Look for signs of machine cut lines or effects which may have only been made possible by later centuries. The inclusion of heavily aesthetic flowers, bows or vined areas may also point to a Victorian style, as well as heavy drapery. 

Gothic Revival Furniture 19th centuryAbove: illustrations of gothic revival interiors and furniture, in the centre is a modern gothic armchair from 1850

The arts and crafts movement sought to create a modern interior design which was both beautiful and simple, taking into account everything from the furniture to the ornaments and fixtures. Famous names in this area include William de Morgan, Philip Webb, Charles Voysey, William Morris, and Charles Robert Ashbee. The central features of arts and craft furniture include the use of nature, such as oak leaves or flora. However, they often value functionality over an abundance of decoration and aesthetic choices. Arts and crafts furniture may also show exposed pins and joinery and use local timber. You may find that these pieces come under a typical farmhouse or country style, displaying great technique in construction whilst not being overly extravagant or expensive to their original market.

Arts and Crafts movement furniture 19th centuryAbove: examples of arts and crafts style furniture including an oak linen press, a turn of the century music cabinet, a William Morris cabinet with artwork by Edward Burne-Jones, and an oak drop-front desk

20th century: Scandinavian and Mid-century Modern 1930 – 1969

The introduction of different styles and materials in the 20th century meant that wooden furniture was not always as popular, many items from this period may be plastic, metal or have a wide variety of different upholstery from traditional weaves to new synthetic fabrics. The sleek and nostalgic designs from the 1930s onwards still have a huge appeal today and can be found in many homes. 

Mid-century modern furniture examplesAbove: examples of mid-century Scandinavian furniture designs including a lounge chair and dining set 

Early 20th century furniture from Scandinavia was a defining influence of the period, this saw a pull towards minimalism and used the principles of the bauhaus movement. This was compelled by the world wars, which saw even more need for well-crafted functionality and manufacturing over purely aesthetic furniture for the modern home. Affordable furniture was also important for the booming consumer market which needed to cater for all aspects of society.

Mid century interiorsAbove: mid-century home interiors featuring classic pieces of furniture from this era

Genuine wooden designs from this period are most often made from solid teak, rosewood or walnut. Higher end chairs may have been cut from one piece or have a streamlined, flowing design, whilst others are simple but have hints to free flowing curves in a wishbone shape or rounded edges. By contrast, some shapes have more of a futuristic look and use angles to define a strong aesthetic. Famous furniture influenced by or originally from this period include tulip chairs and egg chairs, as well as compartmentalised shelving units or room dividers and curving or cornered settees. 

Mid Century Tulip ChairsAbove: different materials were used in modern furniture, such as the moulded tulip chairs featured here (left and right) and a lounge chair with an exposed metal frame

The fashion and possibility of high value for early to mid 20th century furniture means that following a disaster they should always be considered for assessment and restoration in the way that any older antique would be. Due to the original low value of such furniture and the fact that they were designed for everyday use, they may in fact be in poorer condition than an extravagant rococo piece. Common items such as coffee tables may have faced decades of staining from cups and mugs, as well as accidental damage or constant wear from multiple generations. This type of deterioration can be restored in our studio, and whilst some scratches or dents to the wood may be difficult to absolve, the original finish of the surfaces can be brought back with era-appropriate conditioning and finishes. 

How can we help?

Our team of furniture experts specialises in care based on the age of the piece, this includes traditional repairs with sourcing of era-appropriate timber and elements where required. They can also treat furniture with French polish and a variety of protective, historically accurate and visually pleasing finishes. 

To make contact or if you need help to identify antique furniture, please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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