History of Furniture Makers

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

Throughout history, there have been hundreds of notable furniture makers. In this lesson, we will look at a few who in their own way, altered the path of furniture making and design.

History of Furniture Makers

Over time, furniture has experienced an evolution as drastic as the one that brought about the modern humanoid we know today. Initially, furniture makers approached the process as one of function over form. However, over time furniture designs evolved aesthetically to reflect the history of the period and the lifestyle of the people purchasing it. While there are numerable furniture makers who contributed to the evolution, there are a few who stand out as turning points in the history of furniture makers.

Thomas Chippendale, 1718-1779

With his unique style of furniture, the name Chippendale would become synonymous with neoclassical design in the 18th century. It was so popular that it would be imitated by Americans during the colonial period. His furniture designs would span several distinct periods including Rococo Chippendale, Gothic Chippendale, and even Chinese Chippendale. However, by the 1760s, his designs had shifted toward the Neoclassical. This was a turn to more simple lines in his furniture designs.

Gothic Chippendale Chairs

Pieces began to emerge with classic Marlborough legs which were square with a simple block foot design. Regardless of the period of Chippendale designs, he was known for using exotic materials ranging from rosewood to ivory. In addition to his design work, Thomas Chippendale changed how furniture was sold. He created a publication called The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director which included engravings of all of his styles of furniture, from Gothic to Neoclassical, as a means to advertise his designs and secure commissions for furniture. His firm would survive with his son Thomas Chippendale, Jr. as well as his trusted business partners until financial difficulties put them out of business in 1804.

Thomas Sheraton, 1751-1806

The federal period of furniture design had several well-known furniture makers, Thomas Sheraton being one of them. However, while he was well-known for his designs, he struggled to support himself by making furniture as he was not considered the most personable tradesmen to deal with. In spite of that, he was most recognized for his cabinet work which was influenced by the French, specifically the style of Louis XVI. The legs were typically turned on a lathe so that they would be tapered. Occasionally he would flute the legs of chairs. Pieces were designed using different colored veneers in a technique called marquetry to create details patterns of swags, ribbons, urns, and even feathers on the furniture.

Sheraton Designed Chairs

William Morris, 1834-1896

It sounds a bit like a movie of the week, the clergymen in training who gave up his pursuit of faith to become a designer. However, in the case of William Morris that was the course his life took. After leaving his religious training, he worked briefly in architecture, before turning to design.

Sussex Chair

In 1861, Morris formed the design firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., which would later become simply Morris & Co. They were known for their stained glass designs. However, two notable furniture designs also emerged from the company.

The first was the Sussex chair which had all of its pieces, from the legs to the spindles that formed the back and side, turned on a lathe, with the seat itself made from rush. However, they were probably most well-known for the reclining Morris Chair. The slanted back was adjustable, and it had high armrests and an upholstered seat in the back. In fact, even Franklin Delano Roosevelt owned two Morris chairs long before he became president.

Charles Eames, 1907-1978, & Ray Eames, 1912-1988

When it came to modern designs, it was the married couple of Charles and Bernice 'Ray' Eames who ushered in a new era. They met while students at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It was there as part of a competition that Charles began experimenting with molded plywood in furniture designs. His initial prize-winning design in college was a molded plywood chair, which was commended for its affordability. However, after he married Ray and they moved to Los Angeles, they applied that technique to a wide variety of furniture.

ECW (Eames Chair Wood)

While they began designing what was known as Eames Chair Wood (ECW), they would also apply the technique to tables and dining sets. Later, they would use molded fiberglass to make shell chairs. They also shared a passion for making multifunctional pieces of furniture, and their body of designs would include collapsible sofas and aluminum framed pieces.

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