Following Chippendale, the next great cabinetmaker who illustrated a distinct style was Heppelwhite, whose designs are of a simpler character, for a reaction evidently soon set in against the florid monstrosities of Chippendale and his contemporaries. Much of the furniture called Chippendale was made during the Heppelwhite period; not one of long duration however, for not many years after the publication of his designs we find one by Sheraton, who, from an artistic point of view, may be considered the greatest of the three masters who did so much for furniture in England during the last half of the eighteenth century. His designs, that is to say his earlier ones, show a keener appreciation of art principles than those of either of his predecessors, while his later ones show a distinct falling off. Whether this may be attributed to his own failing skill or to the influence of fashion exercising its hold over his pencil it would be useless to discuss, for there is a good deal to be urged in favour of both arguments. In addition to cabinet-makers there were many architects contemporary with Chippendale, Heppelwhite, or Sheraton, who designed furniture or were considerably interested in it, among others the Adam Brothers. An examination of the work of any of them shows it to have been more or less in harmony with that of those who were exclusively cabinet-makers, and it will therefore be unnecessary to refer to it more specifically.
The retrogressive movement in cabinet-making as an art, already begun in Sheraton's time, say at the very commencement of the present century, continued with little abatement till well within the memory of those who would feel hurt to be called old men. A dead level of hideousness prevailed without a single redeeming feature to relieve it for at least the next fifty years, unless the undoubtedly good work which was thrown away in executing bad designs can be considered as such. I do not flatter myself that many old cabinetmakers, that is, men who were in their prime as artisans even so late as thirty years ago, will read these lines; if they do they will probably not agree with these latter remarks, for strange as it may seem there are still to be found among them many who consider the now old-fashioned loo table with massive pillar, carved claws, and figured top, with other furniture in the same style, as nearly perfection as possible. Such furniture may have possessed some beauty, but it lay entirely in the wood, and by no means in the design, which was mostly cumbersome and heavy, devoid of taste, and too often ill adapted to its purpose. Apart from the manual dexterity evinced, there is little worthy of admiration in furniture made since 1800 till comparatively recently. The improvement which has been noticeable in the last few years has been attributed to the influence, or as having originated from the Exhibition of 1851, though for many years after there was little appreciable difference in the quality of the design. Even so lately as twenty years ago the writer remembers a discussion among the heads of a leading firm in the furnishing trade in London on the subject of what was then only slightly and somewhat disparagingly known as 'art' furniture to distinguish it from the other kind, which certainly was not artistic. The decision arrived at was that though art furniture might do for certain high art advocates, it would remain caviare to the multitude. At that time the furnishing establishments who could supply really well-designed furniture were few. What do we find now? Why, that every insignificant furniture dealer professes to be able to supply art furniture and fit up houses in an artistic style. The man who admires the elegant drawing-room suite of five-and-twenty years ago, with the couch or settee on which no one could recline with comfort, and the accompanying chairs with protuberant carvings just placed so that they would make their presence felt on the sitter's spine, all of them covered with striped rep of gaudy hue, is behind the age. Whether the purveyor of modern art furniture knows anything about the principles of art as applied to wood and furniture is another matter altogether. Still, furniture is better designed than it used to be, and the dealer must necessarily supply what is fashionable, so that it is not difficult in most places to meet with well-designed furniture, if, from causes which were alluded to before, it is not always so well made as it might be.
To what, then, may the change which has come o'er the spirit of the dream be attributed? I am inclined to attribute the improvement to the general advancement which has taken place, not only among those interested in the production of furniture, but to the increased attention which is paid to art throughout the entire community. In justice also it may be said that much is owing to that useful, though, outside the trade, little-recognised body of men, the professional designers of furniture. Many of them are not only thoroughly trained artists in wood, but have a knowledge of the conditions under which furniture is made, and must, therefore, be distinguished from those amateur designers who, however keen their general appreciation of art, have not that special knowledge of furniture without which no man can successfully design it. I say this because many such people have arrogated to themselves an importance as teachers of taste and art applied to furniture which is by no means warranted. They may be more or less acquainted with the broad principles of art, but they are quite unable to adapt it to furniture. Even architects, who are often supposed to be competent to design furniture, are, unless they have made it a special study, lamentable failures. When, like the late Bruce J. Talbot - a name almost unknown outside the furniture trade - they have taken the trouble to understand furniture, they can design it as well as those who have made it their special avocation. Otherwise, there is not a manufacturer who has had to work to the designs of an ordinary architect who could not tell some funny tales about them. They do not seem able to get away from the idea that they are designing buildings instead of contents of buildings. As mere drawings their designs may look very nice, but when critically examined the mistakes to a cabinet-maker are often ludicrous. There is a common idea that furniture designed by architects is not only more artistic, but more substantial - better in every way than any other. This is a great mistake, but if there is any difference in quality it is solely owing to the fact that when an architect is employed the price admits of good work being done. Men like Timms have, in the exercise of their profession of furniture designers, done more to popularise carefully-made, well-devised furniture, unknown though their names may be to the general public, than all the art teachers, architects, and others of the amateur class put together. They, the general practitioners of art, have little weight in the practical everyday life of the workshop, for they are not in touch with the workers.