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Inlay is the technique of inserting pieces of materials into cutouts of contrasting materials. This technique was used by many designers, who use this type of technique to decorate items with mother of pearl or ivory. Many of us have seen examples of this in Asian pieces, where black lacquered furniture has mother of pearl designs inset into the furniture creating a beautiful mosaic type design. In many cases, they also used Rosewood as the base and ivory or shells to create the designs. However, one of the most prolific furniture designers that used this technique was Thomas Sheraton.
Sheraton did not use ivory, mother of pearl or shells in his inlay furniture designs, instead opting to use rosewood or kingwood to create the designs inset on a rosewood piece of furniture. Oversimplified, in order to achieve these beautiful designs, the craftsman must first cut the form from a pattern or picture into the base. Using the same pattern, the craftsman then cuts the same pattern or picture from a contrasting piece of wood. The cutout is then inserted in the base where the original pattern was first removed, creating a contrast in the colors of the base wood and the inset wood.
Many people confuse inlay with marquetry or parquetry which were both later used by other designers. In these techniques the cutout and inserts are done on veneer panels that are then used to cover a piece of furniture. Parquetry is the term used for geometrical patterns.
A few months ago, we wrote about The Georgian Period and Thomas Chippendale. Many people who admire or collect antique furniture are very familiar with Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite; and rightly so, as these are two of the most talented and gifted furniture designers of the 1700’s; a period that was full of gifted designers. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there was a third member of that group that was equally talented craftsman whose name is not as well known unless you are really into period furniture. His name was Thomas Sheraton.
Although we know that Sheraton was born in 1751 in Stockton on Tees in England, not much has been written about his personal life or what led him to become one of the most sought after furniture designers of the time. An interesting fact is that the first book penned by Sheraton was indeed a religious tome and had nothing to do with furniture design. It wasn’t until he moved to London in about 1790 that he was finally recognized as a premier designer and teacher/consultant of other craftsmen. In 1791, he published a four book series titled, The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book.
This series of books as well as the design and encyclopedic books that followed were hugely popular with craftsmen and cabinetmakers and many of them built Sheraton Furniture. It is widely believed that Thomas Sheraton did not ever build a piece of furniture and that furniture attributed to him is indeed built in his “style” or “design” but never by his hand. Most of Sheraton’s designs were in the Louis XVI pattern and featured delicate and simple legs, gorgeous inlay and highly polished woods as well as classical motifs. He used a lot of satinwood and mahogany in his designs and used rosewood, kingwood and zebrawood for the most beautiful and intricate inlay designs.