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History of Furniture Design: Timeline & Evolution

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  • 0:04 The First Furniture
  • 0:24 From 3000-300 BCE
  • 1:12 From 500-1550 CE
  • 2:23 From 1567-1900 CE
  • 4:01 From 1900 to the Present
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

Could you imagine your life without furniture? There is evidence that furniture was used as far back as the Stone Age. This lesson focuses on the history and evolution of furniture design.

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.

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