Wednesday, December 10, 2014

American Federal Period Interior Design and Home Decor ~ Part I

Traditional Neoclassical Federal Design & Home Decor in the United States

Image © 2012-15 Restoration Fabrics & Trims

American Federal Style
is a distinct type of Neo-classical Design. American Federal architecture and interior decorating were encouraged as a political statement as well as an aesthetic.

This article explains the historical importance of Traditional Neoclassical Federal style and how you can create this much loved type of interior decor in your own home.

From period appropriate colors and wallpapers to historic fabrics, furniture, and accessories, you will find plenty of information, pictures, and resources about Traditional Neoclassical Federal Design and Home Decor in the United States.

The Neoclassical American Federal style was an intentional adaptation of the Neoclassical genre by America's Founding Fathers. Harkening back to the democracy of Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, Neoclassicism was embraced as a representation of and inspiration for the new nation's ideals by those who supported a Federalist style of government after the Revolutionary War. Federal design peaked in popularity between 1785 and the 1820s, but because it has a timeless and classic quality, its influence lives on.

Federal style integrates English and European influences and was concurrent with the Georgian period in England. Federal neoclassic architecture, furniture, interior design, and home decor is plainer than the Georgian colonial style, with simpler decorative motifs often framed as panels and friezes. It is luxurious yet understated, with graceful lines and a simple elegance that appealed to the tastes and philosophy of the founders of the new United States of America.

The Federal style is often confused with the American Colonial style (which pre-dated the Revolutionary war and the Federal period) and the Early American style which coincided with the Federal period but refers to the more rustic, casual style that characterized most homes. Federal refers to the formal neoclassical style adapted by the affluent.

This parlor is part of the Metropolitan Museum's Decorative Arts collection. It was built c. 1810 by William C. Williams in Richmond, Virginia Source: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Note the careful spacious furniture arrangement and placement of select accessories which is a hallmark of Federal home decor.


Popular Motifs in Federal Style Decor

& Characteristics of Federal Furniture and Accessories

The quintessential symbol of the Federal period is the American Bald Eagle. Other popular motifs included Greek and Roman style portraits and busts of patriotic leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, urns and urn-shaped designs, stars and stripes. Themes drawn from nature included acanthus, tobacco leaves, shells, coral and birds.

There was an emphasis on oval shapes for windows, hardware, decorative embellishments and even architecture (like the White House’s Oval Office). Oval sunburst designs and reeded columns were important elements in just about anything from exterior decoration to fireplace mantels and furniture inlays.

Prior to the Federal era, the homes of the Colonial period featured a central hall opening onto four square rooms. Federal design, however, favored curves above rectangles and rooms often had simple curved plaster walls and rounded Palladian style arched doorways and windows. Ceilings, doorways, and mantels were often adorned with simple plaster garlands and swags draped in curvilinear arcs.

Federal Style furniture, like all Neoclassical design, is typically light, graceful and simple, with clean edges and straight lines. Regional styles ranged from hand-painted details (Boston) to elaborately carved chair backs (Charleston). Decorative features included tapered legs and the use of contrasting veneers and inlays of geometric designs. Brass feet and drawer pulls with round brass rings were popular on earlier and larger pieces of furniture.

Historic Patriotic Accessories for Federal Period Home or Interior Decor

13 Star US Flags
13 Star US Flags
Available in 3 sizes
These historic flags are high-quality with Premium stars and stripes. Each features brass grommets and is suitable for indoor or outdoor display. States included on this flags star field include: CT, DE, GA, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, NC, PA, RI, SC, VA.

Thomas Jefferson Bust (White Patina)United States Great Seal Rug 'Betsy Ross' American FlagHoudon's Bust of George Washington

From Left to Right: Parian Style Thomas Jefferson Bust, Great Seal of the U.S. Area Rug, "Betsy Ross" flag, and Houdon's Bust of George Washington. Click on above photos to see item page.


The Federal Color Palette

For Period Decorating

The Federal Period in America uses a range of white, buff, and gray neutrals in homage to the Greek and Roman statuary it draws inspiration from. It also tends to feature slightly more saturated colors than the light and delicate palette of the concurrent Georgian period in England.

Federal Blue and creamy off-white is perhaps the color scheme one thinks of first, but yellow, rose, lilac, cinnamon browns and shades of green from pale to bold were popular, along with the patriotic palette of red, white and blue. Brass hardware and Pewter and Silver accessories provided an additional touch of elegance and formality. Floors were polished wood or covered with machine woven carpeting was imported from Europe.

Remember, computer monitors do not accurately and consistently depict colors, so the photo should be considered an approximation.


Classic America The Federal Style & Beyond

More than just wonderful photos, this book is a good read that links interior design to the socio-politics, history and architecture of the period.

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Coming next time in Part II
Federal Period Interiors: Names to Know

and in Part III
Federal Period Fabrics, Wallpapers, Rugs, and Accessories

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Looking for Federal Style Fabrics and Reproduction

Wallpaper to Inspire Your Color Palette?


Choose from a wide variety of period reproduction and vintage fabrics and trims from printed floral chintzes and toiles to silk damasks and velvets. Plus a collection of the most beautiful historic reproduction wallpapers.

For Historically sensitive home decorating at budget sensitive below-wholesale prices, visit Restoration Fabrics and Trims for Selection, Savings and Service.

Copyright Notice:  All Text and photos not otherwise credited are © 2013-15 Restoration Fabrics & Trims LLC. All rights reserved.  DO NOT COPY. This page is protected by Copyright Law. We will prosecute plagiarists.


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  1. Thank so much for this! I haven’t been this moved by a post for a long period of time! You have got it, whatever that means in blogging. Anyway, you’re definitely somebody that has something to say that people need to hear. Keep up the great work. Keep on inspiring the people!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write. Hopefully part III will be ready soon - Just haven't had the time to finish it, which is a good thing I suppose -- but I enjoy putting these blogs together and am looking forward to getting them out on a more regular basis.

  3. Looking forward to part three. I have a federal townhouse built in the 1850's and I love getting as much information as possible. Although I do not strictly decorate in period pieces, I do like a more traditional style for my home. Informative post.

  4. Hello Leslie - and thanks for your comment. Always a pleasure to hear from fellow old house dwellers. Apologies (again) for the delay in publishing part 3. Have been busy and dealing with several family health issues that are now almost resolved so should be back with more soon.

  5. We were recently lucky enough to purchase an estate farm in eastern Georgia and it was clearly built and decorated with the Federal Period in mind and we love it. This article was informative and we look to continue to the designs and decorations of the previous homeowner and looking for more resources and artifacts to do so.

  6. This type of message always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content, so happy to find good place to many here in the post, the writing is just great, thanks for the post.
    Home Decor