Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.
The First Furniture
Furniture is defined as movable items that are used to make a space suitable for living or working. People have made furniture since the Neolithic period. Excavations in Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland uncovered a settlement dating to 3215 BCE. Each house had evidence of stone furniture such as cupboards, beds, and seating.
From 3000-300 BCE
Most people know about the furnishings of Egyptian nobility, such as King Tutankhamen, whose tomb revealed many pieces of furniture. Both nobility and working class people enjoyed the comfort of chairs, beds, stools, cabinets, and various types of tables. Many pieces were carved from exotic wood and inlaid with ivory and gold. Straight lines and boxy shapes characterized Egyptian furniture design. The Egyptians enjoyed furniture that was functional as well as pleasing to look at.
The earliest Greek furniture was influenced by the boxy designs of Egypt but by the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the Greek design became softer. Inlays and carvings were used but not to excess. Stools and tables were important pieces, as was the couch, which was used during the day for sitting and during the night as a bed.
From 500-1550 CE
Many houses of this period consisted of one large room, which was used for everything, so furnishings would be limited to a table, some stools, a trunk or cabinet for storage, and perhaps a bed. Medieval furniture was heavy, with blocky legs. It was usually constructed from English oak, although other woods were available. Since the wood was blocky, many pieces were decorated with carvings. The finished pieces were oiled, painted, or varnished.
Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, the Renaissance spread throughout Europe in the 15th century. Italian Renaissance designs looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Ornamentation reflected architectural elements, and some cabinetry design even resembled facades of buildings. Tables were typically rectangular with carved bases. Chairs were high-backed with cushions or upholstery. Carvings used images of mythological and historical figures and might be highlighted with gold paint.
The French Renaissance style was inspired by Charles VIII's travels to Italy, and the Henry II style was the most influential style in French furniture. Furniture makers began to integrate their own stylings into the furniture. As the Renaissance style spread to the Netherlands and to England, less and less of the Italian influence was seen.
From 1567-1900 CE
An English style, Jacobean furniture was inspired by Elizabethan furniture. This style is very sturdy, large in size, and made to last. It was also considered uncomfortable. Ornamentation varied with craftsmen refining some while overdoing others. The furniture was generally square or rectangular and sat lower than previous styles. Furniture legs were narrower than before, and many craftsmen created spiral turned legs to lighten the appearance.
Colonial refers to the period after the colonization of America. Immigrants brought furniture from their home countries and craftsmen adapted those styles to be the practical, functional pieces needed by the settlers. Unlike the Jacobean style, there was little decoration to the early colonial pieces. As new styles came to America, craftsmen adapted those designs as well, making American furniture more sophisticated and decorative.
The 18th century saw rapid changes in furniture design. This period saw a wide variety of styles, ranging from the English William and Mary, Chippendale, and more, to the French styles from Louis XIII to Directoire. Considered the golden age of the cabinetmaker, furniture was carefully designed and built by artisans trained in the fine craft of furniture design.
The Revival period of the 19th century saw the Industrial Revolution change society. The advent of new jobs created a market for home construction and a new generation of furniture buyers. Many earlier styles of furniture were brought back in style, and the mass production methods of the Industrial Revolution made reproducing furniture very easy and cheap. The heavily ornamented detail of the Rococo and Gothic styles could be mass-produced and attached to different kinds of furniture pieces.
From 1900 to the Present
The Art Nouveau, or new art, movement began in France. Striving to bring back the art of the cabinetmaker, Art Nouveau furniture used organic, curved shapes in both the construction and detailing. This style was not easily mass-produced and had finer finishes, meaning many pieces were one of a kind.
The Bauhaus movement introduced new materials to furniture design. Founded by Walter Gropius, an architect, the Bauhaus ideally brought all arts, including furniture design, together to form a total work of art. The furniture designs during this period were very influential in the development of modern design.
The Art Deco period draws influence from many previous styles, including Art Nouveau and Bauhaus. Focusing on bold, geometric shapes and the use symmetry, Art Deco embraced new and expensive materials, such as stainless steel, chrome, glass, mirrors, and exotic prints. Art Deco embraces clean, streamlined shapes and no frills.
Drawing on Bauhaus, Art Deco, and other previous styles, furniture design after WWII relied heavily on materials and construction techniques developed during the war. Laminated plywood, plastics, fiberglass, and metal are construction materials of choice. Furniture lines were streamlined and futuristic, and designed to have a lighter feel.
The history of furniture dates back over 5,000 years. The earliest known furniture dates to 3200 BCE. Discovered in Scotland, the excavated village near Orkney shows indication of stone cupboards, seating, and even beds. Ancient Egyptians of both nobility and the working class built wooden furniture that was functional and pleasing to look at. Ancient Greeks refined the straight, boxy styles of Egyptian furniture and incorporated softer lines and decoration that is more ornate.
The blocky, heavy, and dark furniture of the medieval style transitioned into the Renaissance style, which was inspired by the furniture styles of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The French Renaissance was inspired by Charles VIII's travels to Italy, and the Henry II style was the most influential style in French furniture. Transitioning further, English Jacobean furniture is large and sturdy with varying degrees of ornamentation. The Colonial period is the period after the colonization of America, and cabinetmakers during this period used the furniture of American immigrants and adapted them to a more utilitarian lifestyle. The Rococo style gained attention during the reign of English and French royalty. The Industrial Revolution influenced the Revival period of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Art Nouveau, or new art, used organic, curved shapes in both the construction and detailing. Bauhaus brought all arts, including furniture design, together to form a total work of art. And Art Deco used bold, geometric shapes and the use of symmetry, and embraced new and expensive materials such as stainless steel, chrome, glass, mirrors, and exotic prints. In addition, many other influential but short-lived furniture styles influence modern furniture design.
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