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History of the Furniture Industry

Instructor: Amy Jackson

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

Do you need a new couch or chair? It is so easy to go to a furniture store and select the pieces you want for your home. But, how did we get to the point where furniture purchases are so easy? The term furniture industry includes all aspects from creation to distribution and sales. The lesson will focus on the history of the furniture industry.

In the beginning…

When people began to put down permanent roots, they started creating simple furniture. There is evidence of furniture creation as far back as the Stone Age. A settlement in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, dating from about 2,000 BCE, have examples of stone beds and storage cabinets. In Egypt, there is evidence of wooden beds made during the Early Dynastic period, around 2950 BCE.

While there are few examples of this early furniture, there is a great deal of information provided by pictures from these times. Painting and sculpture show furniture from Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, and other European and Asian cultures. Carpenters who also built structures made much of these earlier pieces. During the 17th century, furniture making became more prominent, and those who built furniture were more respected. Around 1675, the term cabinetmaker referred to someone who worked in a shop building cabinets and other pieces of furniture. With this specialization in craft came a standardizing of manufacturing methods, such as joinery: the way to put pieces of wood together.

Some craftsmen specialized in certain kinds of furniture. Chairmaking became a profession that was devoted only to building various types of chairs. Earlier chairs with turned legs also employed craftsmen specializing in the use of the wood lathe, to reproduce legs. Most furniture made at this time used a one-on-one, client to cabinetmaker, relationship.

Furniture Workshop
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Mass production takes over

The invention of the steam engine in the early 18th century helped change the way furniture was built. There was still quite a bit of handwork that had to be done, but steam powered engines ran machines that made the process easier and faster. Steam engines ran circular saws, planning machines, lathes, sanders, and bandsaws. Many times, entire towns were devoted to furniture building, with many businesses specializing in certain parts of the furniture making process.

The Victorian era of the 19th century demanded more furniture than an individual craftsman could handle. Soon, multiple craftsmen would work together on a single piece of furniture, each one working on a specific part. The mid-19th century also began to see a separation between the buyer and the craftsmen: the furniture seller. Soon the one-on-one relationship between craftsman and buyer was gone, replaced with the furniture showroom where people could choose from many styles of furniture and never meet the people making it.

Before, during, and after WWI, a shortage of wood occurred as the demand for furniture increased. In an effort to make furniture more affordable for the masses, cabinetmakers began experimenting with various fabricated materials such as plywood and laminated wood. These new materials had advantages over natural wood as it did not shrink or swell with moisture fluctuations. These products also allowed scraps of natural wood to be reused eliminating waste. New methods of joinery included adhesives such as waterproof or resin glues. In the mid-1900s, the air gun was introduced as a way to speed up the process of producing the frames for chairs and sofas.

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