Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.
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.
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.
From design to your door
The furniture design process is complex. First, designers research the customer needs and wants of their target market. Designers consider the intended use of the furniture along with factors such as cost and ease of use. They then work on the aesthetics, or the way the furniture looks, by considering the upholstery and other finish materials. Research finishing with sketches and working drawings. Models are then created to see if the concept is workable. Today, most of these models are computer generated and look for any places where the plan may need to be modified. A three-dimensional prototype is then created to double check all aspects of the furniture. The prototype is then tested to see if the product actually works in the real world.
If the product passes all these steps, it is ready to be manufactured. At this point the manufacturing process, whether hand built or mass-produced, begins. Furniture is then sent to retailers to sell to the public.
The earliest known furniture can be traced to the Stone Age. Pictures of furniture can be found in the histories of many countries in Europe and Asia. The role of the cabinetmaker became separate from the carpenter as furniture making became more revered. Some types of furniture became so specialized that the craftsmen did not build anything but that type of furniture. The steam engine revolutionized the furniture industry by making simple machines that could perform many of the tasks that were time consuming, thereby making the process of making furniture less stressful.
Soon furniture warehouses allowed people to purchase furniture without needing to communicate directly with the cabinetmaker. A wood shortage around the time of WW I created a need for man-made materials, which also made the furniture less expensive. Furniture design and manufacture is a complex process but the finished products attract our attention and fill our needs both functionally and aesthetically.
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