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Federal Style

America's first homegrown style, born out of Revolutionary pride, still resonates today

Federal Style

Photo by Tria Giovan

A different George W. was President when Americans first tweaked European house styles to create something distinctly their own. The period just after the Revolutionary War (1780–1820) was a time to project hard-won dignity, not show off. Federal interiors featured muted wall colors, minimal trimwork painted white, and delicately carved or inlaid decoration. The only exceptions to the understated approach were the bold patriotic symbols—fighting eagles, chair backs shaped like shields, trophylike urns, and other celebrations of military pride.


Federal-style desk with reeded legs and oval rosettes, about $130; Target. Urns: wreath-embossed, about $31, and ram's-head-handled, about $350; Maryland China. Plaster bust, about $190; Oly Studuo

Federal Details

Photo by Tria Giovan

Today, Federal details can lend elegance to any interior, whether it's another neoclassical style, such as Colonial or Georgian, or a midcentury modern ranch. "It's the American profile," says Peter Kenny, curator of American decorative arts for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the ovals, arches, and reeded columns that characterized the period. For a closer look, we visited the 1765 Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City, pictured at left, bringing along some new furnishings inspired by Federal style.

Portraits and Busts

Photo by Tria Giovan

Inspired by portraiture of democratic Rome, local leaders commissioned heroic depictions, like this one of Col. John Chester, Washington's military aide.


Photo by Tria Giovan

Niches, alcoves, arches, and curved casings were common, thanks to carpenters' pattern books widely circulated by 1790.


Photo by Tria Giovan

Regional styles marked a household as "cosmopolitan." Charleston chairs were known for their carved backs; Baltimore and Boston chairs, like these, for their painted details.


Photo by Tria Giovan

Ellipses graced everything: hardware, furniture inlays, fanlights, and molding details. Entire rooms were built to celebrate the shape (think Oval Office).


Photo by Tria Giovan

The vase shape, another classical motif, showed up everywhere.

"It was in architecture,

on furniture, and as ornament," says Peter Kenny, the Metropolitan Museum's curator of American decorative arts.

Exterior Details

Photo by Tria Giovan

New York's 1765 Morris-Jumel Mansion has a textbook Federal-era entrance added in 1810, including elliptical fanlight, sidelights, and classical columns. Some of the same architectural details appear on the inside. The beads lining the wood balcony turn up again on an early-19th-century mirror frame in the house. The oval-shaped carvings, called paterae, flanking the door are universal on Federal-era furniture, mantels, and interior woodwork.

The Federal Look Today

Photo by Antonis Achilleos

You can get the Federal look with these new home furnishings that pay homage to the style's elegance but aren't too fussy to live with.

Wall Niche

Gain an instant display niche with this 33-inch-high, 4-inch-deep fiberglass model, which comes ready to paint and recess between wall studs, about $363. TOH readers call 877-959-0800 for a 15 percent discount. Or visit:

Fiberglass Columns

Classical Bust

Photo by Antonis Achilleos

Exuberance over archaeological digs like the one at Pompeii spurred Federal-era fascination with Roman artifacts.

This 13-inch-tall goddess is just a couple of inches deep, to sit comfortably on a dresser or desk. About $195; Jonathan Adler

Geometric Mirror

Photo by Antonis Achilleos

Inlaid with circles, this traditionally inspired mirror wouldn't look out of place in a midcentury modern home. Jada mirror,

about $490; Oly Studuo


Photo by Antonis Achilleos

Wood paneling gave way to wallpaper, much of it featuring classical motifs like swags and urns. St. Germain, left, and St. Antoine, about $195

and about $275 per 11-yard roll; Farrow and Ball

Fighting Eagles

Photo by Antonis Achilleos

The eagle on this oval platter is a ringer for one inlaid on an 1810 table

in the Metropolitan Museum. The lean, scary icon later morphed into the friendlier version

we know today. About $160; Sarah Cihat

Elements of a Style

Photo by Antonis Achilleos

A square back and straight legs evoke the Sheraton style, beefed

up for today's eclectic dining rooms. About $499;

Bauer International