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The Sewell C. Biggs


Exotic Woods, Masterful Makers: Tropical Hardwoods and the Luxury Furniture Trade, 1600‒1850


April 7-9, 2016


Amaranth, brazilletto, cedrela, ebony, kingwood, logwood, mahogany, rosewood, sabicu, satinwood, snakewood: starting in the 1590s, these are but a few of the many hardwood species shipped from tropical forests to ports throughout the western world for use as dyestuffs, pharmaceuticals, flavorants, and in shipbuilding, architecture and luxury furniture. At first expensive and available only in small amounts for the furniture trade, cabinetmakers chose exotic tropical hardwoods to decorate their best pieces. When England’s parliament ended import duties on lumber in 1721, merchants rushed to profit from trade in tropical hardwoods, especially woods marketed as mahogany. Cabinetmakers and consumers quickly adopted mahogany, cedrela and similar species for their most fashionable furniture. Consumers relished the rich colors and eye-catching figures of tropical woods, used both for solid work and veneers. Cabinetmakers valued their dimensional stability and workability. In their best furniture made from these woods, cabinetmakers aligned design and materials, merging art and nature to create powerful aesthetic statements. At the same time, the unregulated harvest of exotic hardwood species for the furniture and shipbuilding trades depended on the labor of enslaved workers and contributed to changes in tropical forests, the legacies of which continues to the present. Join us to explore these exotic woods!



*Image at top right from last year's forum: Chest, 1700–35. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1958.1144. Photo by Gavin Ashworth



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