Post-Colonial Art: American Federal Period Design and Styles

Updated on March 3, 2019
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Ancient art and architecture isn't only for historians, but for people like us who’ve always been interested in anything olden and periodic.


The American Federal period (1789 to 1823) that emerged roughly a decade after the declaration of independence and the formation of the United States of America in 1776, brought on a new-found assertion by the people, not only in politics, but in the creative arts, architecture, and furniture making. And nothing was going to dampen their zeal.

It was a time when Britain’s neoclassic style was largely adopted, and it began to manifest in the preferences and lifestyles of the general populace. Classical architectural styles were fiercely promoted by both President Washington and President Jefferson, and soon the Federal style became one reserved for national buildings and civic structures.

The idea behind this choice mooted by the two statesmen is that America’s newly created republic should reflect the styles of the foreign architectural buildings they admired in republican Rome and democratic Greece.

European Influence on Architectural Styles of the Federal Period

Federal period architecture is the name used to classify Post-Colonial architecture of time between 1780 and 1830, but it was in its heights from around 1785 to the early 1800s. Prominent architects and designers of the Post-Colonial era were all inclined towards varying styles of European architecture and interior design.

The architectural design of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond created by Thomas Jefferson, known as the father of classic revival in America, was inspired by the design of an ancient Roman temple called the Maison Carrée (square box) located in Southern France in a place called Nimes. Nimes was founded as a Roman colony.

John McComb (1763 t0 1853), a renowned American architect that practised in New York and designed many landmarks in the 18th and 19th centuries favoured the French neoclassical styles of art, architecture and interior design.

Dr William Thornton, a physician and an architect who arrived in the United States from Scotland in 1793, designed the Capitol Building. The structure’s history began on September 1793 when President Washington laid its cornerstone in the building's southeast corner. Thornton’s design had strong leanings towards Greek styles and ornaments, and he used these features extensively in this historical monument in Washington.

Charles Bullfinch (1763 to 1844), an early American architect regarded by many as the first native-born American to practice architecture. He made a grand tour of Europe in 1785, travelling to London, Paris, and the major Italian cities. His Federal Period styles were greatly influenced by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and by the classical architectural styles in Italy, and Britain.

And Samuel McIntire (1757 to 1811) who was a furniture craftsman and later became an architect is best known for the Chestnut Street District, a classic example of Federal style architecture. McIntire also worked in the style of Charles Bulfinch, who had made fashionable the neoclassical designs of the Scottish architect Robert Adam.

European Influence on the American Federal Period Interior Design

Three Scottish brothers, the Adam Brothers, were the first designers to create an integrated style for both architecture structures and interior design. Their neoclassical style greatly influenced the designers of the Federal Era.

Floor coverings, wall finishes, ceilings, furniture pieces, fireplaces, interior fixtures, and fittings all had a single uniform scheme. This was the "Style of the Adam Brothers”.

English designers George Hepplewhite, Thomas Chippendale, and Thomas Sheraton, who were master designers, cabinetmakers, and furniture designers, also had their own influence on the American people’s taste for nice interior furnishings and furniture pieces.

The American Federal Period’s interior styles were typified by high ceilings in the more elaborate homes of the wealthy but there was less emphasis placed on wall panelling, unlike what was highly prevalent in the preceding period of the Georgian era where wood panelling was a popularly used as an interior design feature.

The only wall panelling works were majorly installed on fireplace walls while the other remaining walls were generally plastered, painted, wallpapered, or covered lavishly with imported silk textile materials. However, dado and cornices pretty much continued in use while elaborate trims were used for mantels, arches, windows and doors.

Post-Colonial Era – Federalist Furniture and Furnishings

The French influence on Federal Era furniture styles came about because of the French Revolution (1789 - 1799) which caused many to flee the strife in France and migrate to the United States of America. A large number of the migrants were aristocrats who came over with their belongings which included some of their personal furniture and furnishings which they were lucky to salvage.

Many of the wealthy American Southern families loved the French style and easily identified with its finesse. They soon adopted the styles of these imported pieces and created décor that had a French influence in their home interior styles.

A large majority of Federalist craftsmen that designed and produced much of the Post-Colonial furniture and furnishings before 1820 had been born and trained in England and when they migrated to America, they provide their trade to those who could afford it. Their fine furniture designs and products were always considered as top grade.

At this time, the local American designers and craftsmen were not adept at fine craftsmanship and the furniture items made in the smaller towns were poorly finished. They tended to be a little clumsy in proportions and their lines were slightly uneven when compared to those produced by the fine English immigrant craftsmen.

Some of the popular furniture pieces of the Federal Post-Colonial period were made with inlay and fine veneer works. They include:

  • The Hepplewhite sideboard with its undulating curves and serpentine front.
  • Chests-on-chests and chest of drawers with serpentine, straight or segmental fronts.
  • Bookcases, desks and cabinets with delicate ornaments and scroll pediments.
  • Secretaries, tambour desks, dressing tables, China cabinets and tables of every shape for every purpose, all with beautiful finishes and delicate well-proportioned designs

Interior accessories and objects of décor also had the same neoclassical European style. Some of the popular items you’ll find in the homes of the wealthy include:

  • Framed bevelled mirrors with architectural detailing.
  • Tall case clocks.
  • Wall clocks.
  • Mantel Clocks.
  • Glass paintings.
  • Fine porcelain decorations.
  • Cantonese chinaware.
  • Window treatments with swags, tails, and valances.
  • Jabots with ornate fringes and tiebacks.

Further reading:

Georgian Period Interiors – 18th Century Furniture and Interior Design

What Early American Homes of the First Colonial Settlers Were Like

Why Wood Was Used Extensively in The Post-Colonial Era

The American architects and craftsmen had one good thing going for them, they were aware that design principles recognise the fact that each individual material has its own potentials as well as limitations.

During the Federal Period, all the available architectural books showed classical forms and features produced with stone, but because America was, and still is blessed with an abundance of wood forests, it was only natural that both exterior and interior details were made from wood.

Substituting stone with wood caused a new trend to emerge where classical details originally produced from stone material were made using slimmer proportions of wood. Wood columns were built long and narrow and sometimes tapering while mouldings and other finer details became relatively smaller, with ornamentation following the Adam-Pompeian delicate detail styles.

The Federal-era, like the previous eras before it, had an abundance of wood and when an appreciation of the decorative arts became heightened, the craftsmen, wanting to produce finer styles and designs, used imported wood materials to produce their fine furniture works.

While locally sourced woods were apple, pear, maple, cherry, and rosewood and were used for less expensive forms, the imported woods which include mahogany, and satinwood found in India, the West Indies and parts of Florida.

© 2011 artsofthetimes


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      hello nev sorry mate i`v took so long i think this is there site

      and some info , they have a deal on at the mo ,say myself-martellagift him out

    • artsofthetimes profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thank you SanneL,

      History of art is so captivating, just thinking how life could have been back then as compared to our present day.

      Thank you so much for the encouragement.


    • SanneL profile image


      8 years ago from Sweden

      I do love the blend of European and American in this period of design!

      Great hub, I learn so much from you!

      Thank you,

      Voted up and interesting,



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