Design in Practice: William & Mary Dressing Tables

w__m_highboy_lrgThe dressing table, or lowboy (and the terms are interchangeable in my book), is the perfect piece to study design. Much like a chair, it’s a complete microcosm of the elements that make up each style (and the transitions that take place between them). You not only get the basic flavor of the style, but there’s also tons to discover about regional variation.

In this country you don’t find dressing tables come into prominence until the William & Mary period. You also don’t find the highboy, or high chest (again, interchangeable), until the same basic time period, and lowboys tend to mimic the base of a highboy. Many lowboys were made as one half of a matching pair; a high chest and dressing table. But they are much more than just a highboy without the upper chest sitting on top. In fact, they are completely different than their grander counter-parts in many ways.

To begin with, their scale is smaller. A lowboy just doesn’t need to support as much weight, both physically and visually, as the base of a highboy. When you consider that most 18th century furniture design is based on the five classic orders of architecture, designing a low, horizontal piece of furniture that has both storage and visual lift is a challenge for any craftsman. How do you balance the desire for verticality with the need for drawer space? When you look at period examples, the answer is apparent – some with success and others, not so much.

Photo courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Photo courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

While William & Mary (may or) may not be your favorite period, but it’s hard to deny the visual success of the Yale lowboy at the right. Compared to the base of the highboy at the top of the post (if we use the design as a baseline, even though the pieces were made in different regions by different cabinetmakers), the maker of the Yale lowboy achieved a lighter, more vertical look in several ways.

First, the reduction of the two center legs to finials helps reduce the visual weight of the piece. Six legs on such a small piece would have looked cluttered and bottom heavy. Opening up the space in the middle of the lowboy allows the outer legs to draw your eye upward from the floor making the piece appear taller.

The next change that modifies the look of the piece is a change in the proportions of the outer drawers. By narrowing them in width, the cabinetmaker continues to draw the eye upward from the legs. Putting more space between the drawers also makes them appear taller and narrows the overall look of the lowboy.

Photo courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Photo courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

The final changes that help keep the piece from becoming a bloated box are the deep cutouts in the apron and the large overhanging top. By bringing the cutouts so close to the bottom of the drawers, the cabinetmaker again pushes your eye upward, whereas the apron on the highboy has more space giving the piece extra mass (necessary on a visual level given the weight it carries above). The generous overhang on the top makes the case appear narrower than it is, accentuating the tall, narrow legs.

Contrast the lowboy above to the Massachusetts example to the left. Although the cabinetmaker eliminated the two center legs, the heft of the remaining legs pulls the eye down and gives the lowboy more bottom weight. The space below the drawers to the bottom of the apron cutout adds even more visual weight to the piece. The broader drawers and smaller overhang all contribute to a piece that is less graceful overall.

That’s not to say the lowboy at the left isn’t a beautiful, well-made piece, it’s just that one is slightly more successful as an overall design than the other. I thought for my first “Design in Practice” post here on 360, I’d try to do a little comparison to get you looking at the various elements of a piece and how cabinetmakers combine them to achieve different looks. Essentially, both lowboys are made up of the same elements – a case, four legs, some drawers and a top. When you start working on your next piece, consider how all the parts play together and tell me which direction you’d rather go.

— Chuck Bender


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2 thoughts on “Design in Practice: William & Mary Dressing Tables

  1. Chuck,
    A great topic. I love comparisons of similar pieces with variation in execution. My novice eye can tell the right of it, but cannot yet put a why to it. Thanks.

  2. Chuck, I understand! I thought I had a pretty good I on proportions but I realize now that I better watch myself and my confidence. Thanks! jt

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