The Mathematics of Elegance

An Icon of Early Connecticut Furniture

November 22, 2019–January 12, 2020

With little more than a compass, a straight edge, and a few sheets of paper, Connecticut cabinetmaker Eliphalet Chapin designed exceptional furniture both pleasing to the eye and to the rational mind. The proportions of this high chest are rooted in mathematics related to the Ionic order. The study of classical architecture’s five orders was seen as essential to understanding the perspective and geometric construction—”the very soul and basis” of the cabinetmaker’s art according to tastemaker Thomas Chippendale. Even Chapin’s complex pediment and asymmetrical cartouche designs rely on a series of compass points—reflections of basic geometric principles. Two notable high chests attributed to his workshop demonstrate the classical proportioning and geometric construction as reflected in sophisticated eighteenth-century design. In 1767, Chapin left East Windsor and resettled in Philadelphia, a flourishing center for the prevailing “modern” Rococo taste, characterized by naturalistic asymmetrical ornamentation. When Chapin returned to Connecticut, he tailored his sophisticated understanding of proportion, use of the latest construction techniques, and Rococo-inspired designs to his local clientele. Chapin’s work reflects the beauty achieved when skillful craftsmanship meets well-conceived design. 

This project was done in collaboration with master-carver Will Neptune, co-author of Classical Proportioning in Eighteenth Century Furniture Design (American Furniture, 2017) and Bob Van Dyke, Director of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. 

Images: High Chest, 1775-85. Attributed to Eliphalet Chapin (American, 1741-1807). Cherry and pine. Made in East Windsor Hill, CT. Gift of the Society for Savings, founded by Daniel Wadsworth in 1819, and Bank of Boston Connecticut. Photos by Gavin Ashworth.