Post-Colonial Art and Styles (American Federal Era)

Updated on May 29, 2017
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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 Era was on for roughly three decades after the declaration of independence (formation of the United States of America). The new era brought on an assertion not only in politics, but in the creative arts and furniture craft as well.

Nothing was going to dampen the zeal of the new-found assertion of the Postcolonial era.

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

These two statesmen were of the opinion that the newly created American republic must reflect the foreign architectural buildings they admired, those of a republican Rome and a democratic Greece.

Influence of European Architecture on Federal Period Structures

The prominent designers of the day were each inclined towards varying styles of European architecture and interior design styles. For instance:

The design of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond created by Thomas Jefferson (father of classic revival in America) was inspired by an ancient Roman structure, the Maison Carre in Nimes.

Also, McComb, a renowned architect that practised in New York 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 and who designed the Capitol Building whose 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, features he used extensively in the Washington historical monument’s design.

And Charles Bullfinch, also a prominent architect and S. McIntire who was a craftsman/architect (the former from Boston and the latter from Salem) both styled their designs after the Adam Brothers classicism.

The overall styles of these five men were an imaginative conception of the decorative arts, with an added flamboyance of an American touch to classical art.

Influence of European Furniture and Interior Design on Federal Era Styles

The three Scottish brothers known as The Adam Brothers were the first designers to create an integrated style for both exterior and interior design. Their neoclassical style greatly influenced the designers of the Federal Era

Floor coverings, walls, 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 in interior furnishings and furniture.

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 America. A large number of them were aristocrats who came over as immigrants and brought along with them their belongings, including personal furniture and furnishings 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 importations, reasons for the French influence in their home décor style.

Typical Period Interior Styles

The Federal period interior styles were typified by high ceilings in the more elaborate homes of the wealthy.

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 was usually done on the fireplace wall while the other remaining walls were generally plastered, painted, finished with wallpaper 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 – Furniture and Furnishings

It is good to know that a large majority of craftsmen that designed and produced much of the post-Colonial furniture and furnishings before 1820 had been born and trained in England and later migrated to America to provide their trade. Their fine furniture designs and products were always considered top grade.

But the local American designers and craftsmen were not adept at fine craftsmanship. The furniture products they 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 of the Federal post-Colonial period were made with inlay and fine veneer works and 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 home of the wealthy include:

  • Framed bevelled mirrors with awesome architectural detailing
  • Tall case clocks
  • Wall clocks
  • Mantel clocks
  • Glass paintings
  • Fine porcelain
  • Canton china
  • Window treatments - swags, tails, valances
  • Jabots with ornate fringes and tiebacks.

Why Wood Was Used Extensively

The American architects and craftsmen had one thing going for them. They were very much 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 (still is) blessed with an abundance of wood forests, it was only natural that both exterior and interior details were made in wood.

Substituting stone materials with wood caused a trend to emerge where classical details originally produced from stone material were made in slimmer proportions using wood.

Wood columns were built long and narrow and sometimes tapering. Moldings and similar finer details became relatively smaller with ornamentation following the Adam-Pompeian delicate detail style.

This era, like the previous ones before it, had an abundance of wood and the Federal Period was no different. But because an appreciation of the decorative arts had become heightened, woods were also imported to produce fine furniture works.

Popular woods used include:

Imported woodsmahogany, satinwood (found in India, the West Indies and parts of Florida)

Locally sourced woodsapple, pear, maple, cherry, rosewood

© 2011 artsofthetimes


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    • profile image

      martellawintek 5 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 image

      artsofthetimes 6 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

      SanneL 6 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,