When we see an Apple logo on our smart phone, we don’t think fruit, we think cutting-edge devices. When we see Starbucks’ green mermaid with long wavy locks, we don’t think sea creatures, we think a cool place for cappuccinos. And when citizens of America and Europe in the 18th century saw urns, they didn’t think funerals and ashes, they thought noble simplicity, beauty, and reason.
A type of vessel with a footed base, high shoulder and with or without handles and lids, urns were a ubiquitous symbol for furniture, the decorative arts and architecture during the Neoclassic period, culminating centuries of the symbol’s appearance.
The urn that forms the back of the mahogany dining chair (above) was likely carved by Samuel McIntire. He and his well-to-do clients in a Massachusetts seaport were routinely educated in the classics. So everyone in the late 1700’s gathered in dining rooms and parlors furnished with such chairs knew, first, that urns in Greco-Roman times had been originally used for funerary and ceremonial rites and, second, that they had became a favored motif in antiquity. As the New England Antiques Journal offers, the top-of-mind response to an ornament like a carved urn on a chair back was that this was simply a sign of the venerable ancient world and hence of the fashionable taste of the chair’s proprietor. The urn suggested a brand of acceptance.
McIntire’s chair design probably came from George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide published in 1788 in London. But the chair’s understated and symmetrical urn ornament, pulsing with a message from the antique world, held pointed meaning for citizens everywhere in America, a new nation that turned to the greatness of Rome and Greece for guidance. The elegant simplicity of the urn shape as well as its neat symmetry enhanced its appeal to the ideals of restraint and reason, treasured values of America’s young republic.
Recent discoveries of lost ancient worlds at Pompeii and Herculaneum inspired the Neoclassic movement and its taste for the Greco-Roman ornamental language of urns, vases, swags, columns, acanthus leaves, and scrolls. The urn shape was particularly high profile for pacesetting architects like Robert Adam. And it — along with the urn’s parent, the vase — was popularized in ceramic form (above) by Josiah Wedgwood, who fueled and benefitted from a craze that came to be known as “vasemania.”
Hundreds of years later the urn’s inherent visual as well as symbolic properties attracted Art Deco’s Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. Mashing up classicism and modernity, the French designer set his now famous 1920s dressing table on top of a stylized and striking urn base (above).
While the two thousand-year plus history of urns and vases as icons is rich and layered, visual quotations from times past might appear offensive in today’s minimalist, anti-historic age. How relevant are chairs, tables and mirrors with carved urns? Do symbols belong only on our coffee cups? Edgy designers like Marcel Wanders and Tord Boontje, among others, are now questioning the blanket ornament taboo, siding perhaps with architect Witold Rybczynski, who noted of our physical world, without ornament “there is no play, and without play our world is impoverished indeed.”
To learn more about urns and Neoclassic motifs, consider exploring Bienenstock Furniture Library’s historic volumes on Robert Adam and Giovanni Battista Piranesi and, of course, Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Guide. Vasemania by Stefanie Walker and Details by Sally B.Woodridge offer more insight on this topic.