20th Century English Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

Explore the evolution of English furniture in the 20th century. In this lesson, learn about Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco and other styles that developed in the last century and examine the main characteristics of each one.

Britain in the 20th Century

The 20th century was a time of big changes and technological advances. During this century, communications became widely available, transportation became faster, computers and the Internet were developed and the daily lives of people were transformed. It was the transition into today's world.

At the turn of the 20th century, industrial processes and mass production were becoming more common, and hand-made crafts were gradually being replaced. Therefore, the design styles that emerged during those years were mostly a response to industrialization. Some of them embraced the new reality, while others presented a rather melancholic view of the past.

Main 20th-Century Furniture Styles

In the early 20th century, English furniture was influenced by the styles from continental Europe. However, the designs often kept a local taste and were adapted to the needs of the national market. Between wars, furniture gradually became more open to foreign trends and after World War II, it became very international in scope.

Art-Nouveau (1890 - 1910)

Art Nouveau started in France as a response to industrialization, highlighting the value of hand-made craftsmanship. This style was very innovative and touched all forms of arts. In England, however, it developed with significant variations.

Art Nouveau was inspired by nature and references to flowers and trees were abundant. Varnished mahogany and walnut were used but painted woods were also a popular finish. The furniture pieces had some ornaments and curved lines, but they were often subtler when compared to the continental pieces.

Art Nouveau piano by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Art Nouveau piano

Most designs continued to be symmetrical, while in continental Europe, many designers deliberately searched for asymmetry, either in the layout or the decoration.

Edwardian (1901 - 1910)

While Art Nouveau pieces were expensive and popular among the upper classes, Edwardian furniture was mostly created for the middle class. Therefore, the pieces had a moderate scale in order to fit into smaller rooms.

The designs were light and simple with soft curves and a moderate ornamentation. Edwardian furniture had a more informal look. Furniture makers incorporated bamboo and wicker as new materials. Traditional woods like mahogany, rosewood and satinwood were sometimes used as well. Some pieces had ornamental details of bone inlays, and the upholstery often featured plenty of floral designs and light colors.

Edwardian Chair
Edwardian chair

Art Deco (1920 - 1940)

The Art Deco style started in France around the year 1920. It is often considered as an evolution of Art Nouveau. This new style had simplified forms, looking to make industrial production easier. It was very popular in most parts of Europe and North America. It was also seen in England, although not as widespread.

The furniture pieces were symmetrical and the layouts emphasized geometric forms. Designers combined straight and curved elements to create simple yet bold outlines with an elegant look. Mahogany and walnut were often used for the finer pieces, which were usually given a very glossy finish. Maple and pine were more affordable materials and were commonly used for the lacquered pieces that featured a shiny finish. Also, furniture designers often incorporated elements of aluminum, stainless steel and glass.

Art Deco furniture inside the Eltham Palace in South London
Art Deco furniture

Modernism (1920s - 1940s)

Modernism was an artistic movement that embraced new technologies and materials. It started in continental Europe and was seen in England mostly through imported pieces. The designers focused on functionality and affordability and conceived simple designs that could be easily mass produced. The pieces were sober and functional and had an elegant look. Steel, glass and other modern materials were commonly used and neutral colors (black, white, chromed metal) were preferred.

Modernist table by Eileen Gray (1927)
Modernist table

Mid-Century Modern (1933 - 1965)

After World War II, large parts of Europe were in ruins and design ideas from America started to be adopted and replicated elsewhere. Gradually, the Scandinavian design also became popular and started to influence design trends as well.

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