Tag Archives: style

Prop Rehearsal Notes

Happy Friday, everyone! I have a short, but sweet, list of links today:

This should keep you busy for awhile: 110 Best DIY Tips Ever. Popular Mechanics magazine is celebrating its 110th anniversary, and to celebrate, they have looked through the pages of all their old issues to find all the best tips and tricks they have ever printed. Whether you are a beginner or an old pro, you are sure to learn something new here.

Tested has a great feature on how foam latex spawned a horror makeup revolution. They touch on the history of makeup and prosthetics in film, looking at some of the pioneers of the craft.

This next article comes from an interior designer, but it’s really about the secrets of a prop stylist. She lists some ways to improve your ability to dress and style a set (though she is actually talking about applying those tips to your own home).

Chair Backs

Chair Back Styles

From 1995 to around 2004, a magazine known as Proptology was published by a Canadian props professional named Wulf. He published a multi-part series called “A Field Guide to Furniture Styles”, which contained a lot of useful illustrations and information for identifying period Western furniture. One of the parts had a nice little list of chair backs. I have taken this information and these illustrations and arranged them in a nice little grid where they are grouped by similar appearances.

I have some other helpful illustrations in previous posts: analysis of a chair, 40 styles of chairs, and parts of a chair. Armed with these images, we are well on our way to developing a visual guide to identifying the period of a chair based on its appearance.

Chair Backs
Chair Backs, illustrations by Wulf

Bentwood: Late 1800s.

Fiddle: Characteristic of Queen Anne style. 1700s.

Sheaf: Can also be a splat which is pierced in the same style. Late 1700s.

Pierced Splat: Characteristic of Chippendale designs. Late 1700s.

Balloon: Characteristic of Victorian style. Mid 1800s.

Round: Often an open frame with no upholstery. Mid 1800s.

Anthemion: Greek motif favored by Hepplewhite. Late 1700s.

Shield: Characteristic of Hepplewhite. Late 1700s.

Lath: Curved, flat uprights. Very sturdy. 1800-1900s.

Bannister: Like stick back but with turned posts. 1600-1800s.

Stick: Primarily used in country furniture. 1600-1800s.

Bow: Typical form of Windsor style chair. 1600-1800s.

Pillow Top: A narrower top is called “Bolster Top”. 1800s.

Lyre: Popular motif in Empire style designs. Early 1800s.

Ladder: With pierced splats is called “Pretzel Back”. 1400-1900s.

Square: Characteristic of Sheraton’s designs. Late 1700s.

Chairs - Front and side elevations

Analysis of a Chair

I’ve always thought it might be helpful to have a way of determining the identity and style of a chair by using visual means rather than by memorizing the names of all sorts of periods and styles. Sure, one can attempt to divide all chairs into forty distinct styles, but that is more helpful after the fact. As a props person, we are often faced with an existing chair, or picture of a chair, and we need to discern its style so we can find more like it. “This chair has kind of a Chippendale back, but with turned legs. What is it?”

Well, I haven’t accomplished anything like that, but I have come across a series of plates in the book Furniture Designing and Draughting, by Alvan Crocker Nye, published in 1907. These plates break down and illustrate the variations in each of the parts of a chair. If you remove ornamentation and look at just the basic shapes, you can design almost any chair from Western furniture history simply by picking and combining these variations. Even with the rudimentary distillations of chair design in  these plates, you can create 486,000 distinct-looking chairs.

Chairs - Front and side elevations
Chairs - Front and side elevations

Plate VII above shows variations on how the legs can be oriented. In the top row, we see side elevations of a chair with a straight back and straight legs, an inclined back with straight legs, an inclined back with back legs inclined, and the back and all legs inclined. In the second row, we see the back inclined and legs crossed, than front elevations showing an upright form, an inclined form, and finally an X or scissor form.

Arms, seats and stretchers
Arms, seats and stretchers

In Plate VII, we see the variations a chair’s arms can take. Under the “horizontal arm” drawing, we first see a plan showing how the orientation of the chair’s arm matches the shape of the seat. The two plans below it show how the arms curve out so the space between the arms is wider than the shape of the seat at the back. The two plans under the “receding arm post” show how the arm can be a compound curve or can be a continuation of the curve of the chair’s back. Finally, the elevation of the “sloping arm” chair shows that the arm can be higher in the back than in the front.

The plans of stretchers show how the reinforcing bracing of the legs can be arranged in either a box (trapezoid), an H, or an X (or cross) configuration.

Finally, the last column shows us different seat plans: square, trapezoid, triangle, circle, a circle and rectangle composite, and a circle and curves composite.

Outline of chair backs
Outline of chair backs

Plate IX shows outlines of common chair backs. 1) Rectangular. 2) Trapezoidal. 3) Polygonal. 4) Elliptical. 5) Semi-circular. 6) Shield.

Composition of back
Composition of back

Plate X gives various compositions of the chair back. 1) Paneled. 2) “Splat”, vertical. 3) “Banister”, vertical. 4) “Four Back”, horizontal. Variations include the “Three Back”, or the much rarer “Five Back”. 5) Composite.

In the bottom right corner of the plate are four outlines of top rail shapes: horizontal, triangular, trapezoidal, and circular.

An old box label. Photo by Eric Hart.

Period Props

When you are researching a time period or dressing a set, remember that people do not buy all new things every single year. A real house or apartment is filled with the clutter of the entire life of the people who live there. My parents, for instance, do not have a house decorated completely from items taken out of this year’s catalogs. Their furniture ranges in period from contemporary all the way back to Victorian. So a play about a similar English couple living in the Victorian period could have furniture ranging from Victorian back to Regency, or even Georgian.

When you study different period styles, you often run across lists and descriptions of what was “popular” or “in style” during certain time periods. Another idea to keep in mind is that most people are very varied in their stylishness. Some people always seem to be up with the latest trends; others have excruciatingly bad taste. During the Art Deco period, Ancient Egyptian motifs and styles came into vogue. That does not mean that someone would have thrown out all their furniture and decorated their place entirely in Egyptian-inspired furniture. Depending on how important style is to your character, there may be a few such pieces scattered throughout; there may also be none. Many of the characters in plays cannot afford to buy new furniture whenever tastes change.

An old box label. Photo by Eric Hart.
An old box label. Photo by Eric Hart.

Finally, I wanted to point out something which is obvious to many prop masters but not often to beginners. If your play is set in the 1920s, and you find a number of antiques from the 1920s, they will have a natural aura of age. Metal will have rust and patina, paper will be yellow and brittle, paint will be faded and peeled. This is not what the items will look like in the world of the play though. If a play is set a hundred years ago, that does not mean the items will look a hundred years old. Quite the contrary, the items will look new and well taken care of. A book will have bright white pages, metal will gleam and paint will be fresh. Obviously, the play itself can have antiques or old items; my point is that the contemporary props in a period play need to appear contemporary. For many props, you cannot use any but the most well-preserved antiques; you will have to find modern substitutes or construct your own.

40 Styles of Chairs

This was originally published in the February 1907 issue of Popular Mechanics. As such, it does not include over a hundred years of chair evolution. Still, it’s a good starting point for narrowing down what kind of chair your production needs.

There are 40 distinct styles of chairs embracing the period from 3000 B.C. to 1900 A.D. — nearly 7,000 years. Of all the millions of chairs made during the centuries, each one can be classified under one or more of the 40 general styles shown in the chart. This chart was compiled by the editor of Decorative Furniture. The Colonial does not appear on the chart because it classifies under the Jacobean and other styles. A condensed key to the chart follows:

40 styles of chairs
Click for a larger view

Egyptian — 3000 B.C. to 500 B.C. Seems to have been derived largely from the Early Asian. It influenced Assyrian and Greek decorations, and was used as a motif in some French Empire decoration. Not used in its entirety except for lodge rooms, etc.

Grecian — 700 B.C. to 200 B.C. Influenced by Egyptian and Assyrian styles. It had a progressive growth through the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian periods. It influenced the Roman style and the Pompeian, and all the Renaissance styles, and all styles following the Renaissance, and is still the most important factor in decorations today.

Roman — 750 B.C. to 450 A.D. Rome took her art entirely from Greece, and the Roman is purely a Greek development. The Roman style “revived” in the Renaissance, and in this way is still a prominent factor in modern decoration.

Pompeian — 100 B.C. to 79 A.D. Sometimes called the Grecian-Roman style, which well describes its components. The style we know as Greek was the Greek as used in public structures. The Pompeian is our best idea of Greek domestic decoration. Pompeii was long buried, but when rediscovered it promptly influenced all European styles, including Louis XVI, and the various Georgian styles.

Byzantine — 300 A.D. to 1450 A.D. The “Eastern Roman” style, originating in the removal of the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (then called Byzantium). It is a combination of Persian and Roman. It influenced the various Moorish, Sacracenic and other Mohammedan styles.

Gothic — 1100 to 1550. It had nothing to do with the Goths, but was a local European outgrowth of the Romanesque. It spread all over Europe, and reached its climax of development about 1550. It was on the Gothic construction that the Northern European and English Renaissance styles were grafted to form such styles as the Elizabethan, etc.

Moorish — 700 to 1600. The various Mohammedan styles can all be traced to the ancient Persian through the Byzantine. The Moorish or Moresque was the form taken by the Mohammedans in Spain.

Indian — 2000 B.C. to 1906 A.D. The East Indian style is almost composite, as expected of one with a growth of nearly 4,000 years. It has been influenced repeatedly by outside forces and various religious invasions, and has, in turn, influenced other far Eastern styles.

Chinese — 3500 B.C. to 1906 A.D. Another of the ancient styles. It had a continuous growth up to 230 B.C., since when it has not changed much. It has influenced Western styles, as in the Chippendale, Queen Anne, etc.

Japanese — 1200 B.C. to 1906 A.D. A style probably springing originally from China, but now absolutely distinct. It has influenced recent art in Europe and America, especially the “New Art” styles.

Italian Gothic — 1100 to 1500. The Italian Gothic differs from the European and English Gothic in clinging more closely to the Romanesque-Byzantine originals.

Tudor — 1485 to 1558. The earliest entry of the Renaissance into England. An application of Renaissance to the Gothic foundations. Its growth was into the Elizabethan.

Italian Renaissance, Fifteenth Century — 1400 to 1500. The birth century of the Renaissance. A seeking for revival of the old Roman and Greek decorative and constructive forms.

Italian Renaissance, Sixteenth Century — 1500 to 1600. A period of greater elaboration of detail and more freedom from actual Greek and Roman models.

Italian Renaissance, Seventeenth Century — 1600 to 1700. The period of great elaboration and beginning of reckless ornamentation.

Spanish Renaissance — 1500 to 1700. A variation of the Renaissance spirit caused by the combination of three distinct styles—the Renaissance as known in Italy, the Gothic and the Moorish. In furniture the Spanish Renaissance is almost identical with the Flemish, which it influenced.

Dutch Renaissance — 1500 to 1700. A style influenced alternately by the French and the Spanish. This style and the Flemish had a strong influence on the English William and Mary and Queen Anne styles, and especially on the Jacobean.

German Renaissance — 1550 to 1700. A style introduced by Germans who had gone to Italy to study. It was a heavy treatment of the Renaissance spirit, and merged into the German Baroque about 1700.

Francis I — 1515 to 1549. The introductory period when the Italian Renaissance found foothold in France. It is almost purely Italian, and was the forerunner of the Henri II.

Henri II — 1549 to 1610. In this the French Renaissance became differentiated from the Italian, assuming traits that were specifically French and that were emphasized in the next period.

40 styles of chairs
Click for a larger view

Louis XIII — 1616 to 1643. A typically French style, in which but few traces of its derivation from the Italian remained. It was followed by the Louis XIV.

Elizabethan — 1558 to 1603. A compound style containing traces of the Gothic, much of the Tudor, some Dutch, Flemish and a little Italian. Especially noted for its fine wood carving.

Jacobean — 1603 to 1689. The English period immediately following the Elizabethan, and in most respects quite similar. The Dutch influence was, however, more prominent. The Cromwellian, which is included in this period, was identical with it.

William and Mary — 1689 to 1702. More Dutch influences. All furniture lighter and better suited to domestic purposes.

Queen Anne — 1702 to 1714. Increasing Dutch influences. Jacobean influence finally discarded. Chinese influence largely present.

Louis XIV — 1643 to 1715. The greatest French style. An entirely French creation, marked by elegance and dignity. Toward the end of the period it softened into the early Rococo.

Georgian — 1714 to 1820. A direct outgrowth of the Queen Anne, tempered by the prevailing French styles. It includes Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton, but these three great cabinetmakers were sufficiently distinct from the average Georgian to be worthy separate classification.

Chippendale — 1754 to 1800. The greatest English cabinet style. Based on the Queen Anne, but drawing largely from the Rococo, Chinese and Gothic, he produced three distinct types, viz.: French Chippendale, Chinese Chippendale and Gothic Chippendale. The last is a negligible quantity.

Louis XV — 1715 to 1774. The Rococo period. The result of the efforts of French designers to enliven the Louis XIV, and to evolve a new style out of one that had reached its logical climax.

Hepplewhite — 1775 to 1800. Succeeded Chippendale as the popular English cabinetmaker. By many he is considered his superior. His work is notable for a charming delicacy of line and design.

Louis XVI — 1774 to 1793. The French style based on a revival of Greek forms, and influenced by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii.

Sheraton — 1775 to 1800. A fellow cabinetmaker, working at same time as Hepplewhite. One of the Colonial styles (Georgian).

R. & J. Adam — 1762 to 1800. Fathers of an English classic revival. Much like the French Louis XVI and Empire styles in many respects.

Empire — 1804 to 1814. The style created during the Empire of Napoleon I. Derived from classic Roman suggestions, with some Greek and Egyptian influences.

New Arts — 1900 to date. These are various worthy attempts by the designers of various nations to create a new style. Some of the results are good, and they are apt to be like the “little girl who had a little curl that hung in the middle of her forehead,” in that “when they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid.”