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Persian Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about beautiful Persian furniture. Explore its history and main characteristics, including materials, techniques, and ornamentation. Also, discover outstanding furniture types like the Persian carpets, lattices, and more.

Persia

Persia was the cradle of beautiful and elaborate artistic creations. Its important position on ancient trade routes allowed for foreign influences to arrive but also for Persian items to delight other regions of the world. Even today, we often think of Persia as exotic, mysterious, and captivating.

Persia is a historical region that covers modern-day Iran and parts of the neighboring countries. In antiquity, the mighty Persian Empire expanded from the borders of India all the way to the Mediterranean coasts.

During the 7th century CE, Persia was among the first regions to convert to Islam. Religion has had a strong influence on art and design ever since. Indian and Chinese influences were also adopted throughout the centuries, especially during the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. For centuries, Persia flourished as an independent nation, and in the early 20th century, Iran was established.

In art history and design, Persian furniture usually includes the different pieces created in the area since the Middle Ages. These objects developed with similar characteristics and thus are often studied together.

Modern Iranian furniture still incorporates many traditional elements. However, the traditional craftsmanship has been gradually replaced by foreign mass-produced items.

The Style of Persian Furniture

Persian furniture stood out for its rich ornamentation, although rooms usually had few pieces of furniture. It was common to have low sofas or even just cushions directly on the floor for sitting. Therefore, tables were often low as well. Furniture was expensive, so chairs were mostly reserved for wealthy families and royalty, and they were usually used for receiving important visitors.

Ebony chair with ivory inlays, early 19th century
Ebony chair with ivory inlays

Furniture and interior design were closely related, and some architectonic elements had specific functions that we commonly associate with furniture pieces. For example, in the dining area, the floor of the central part was sometimes lower, making the cushions be at a higher level and increasing comfort. Window lattices had a similar use to that of modern window shades.

Decorative Motifs

The decoration was heavily influenced by Islam, and most pieces featured non-figurative motifs, common in Islamic arts. These include complex geometric patterns, stylized flowers and leaves known as arabesques, and stylized calligraphic texts - usually with fragments from the Quran.

Unlike other Islamic cultures, Persia was more open towards figurative representations. In Persian arts and furniture, we sometimes find pieces decorated with animal and even human forms, usually representing historical events. In religious art, however, human representations remain completely absent.

Despite the elaborate ornamentation, Persian furniture was balanced, with carefully studied proportions and symmetric designs.

Wooden Furniture

Wooden boxes for storing jewelry and manuscripts were valuable items among wealthy families. The boxes were usually lacquered and had a dense decoration of non-figurative motifs and, sometimes, representations of historical events.

Wooden box decorated with gold and watercolors of battle scenes, late 18th century
Wooden box

Local woods were limited due to the arid climate and scarce vegetation, so most of it was imported. Brown woods were commonly used, especially teak. Sometimes, ebony was used for very special pieces.

The use of inlays was a common technique for decoration. It consisted of carving decorative motifs on wood and then filling the space by inserting small pieces of different materials, usually ivory or pearl. This technique was probably learned from India.

Lamps

Lamps were another important object. These pieces were usually made out of glass and bronze or brass and the exterior was finished with enamel or golden elements. The decorative motifs were mostly non-figurative and the entire surface was often covered with arabesques with a calligraphic text on the middle. Other important metalwork items were incense lamps, boxes, and vases.

Lamp decorated with enamel and gold, 14th century
Persian lamp

Persian Carpets

Persian carpets or rugs are among the most distinctive type of Persian furniture. Even today, they are cherished objects and are mentioned in the Quran as a furniture element of Paradise. Carpets vary in size and function: some are created for decoration while others are used for praying.

Persian carpet from Kashan, 17th century
Persian carpet

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