Spanish Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A lot of European furniture looks the same, so what makes Spanish styles so unique? In this lesson, we'll examine Spanish furniture and learn how to define it.

Spanish Furniture

Red-caped matadors. Knights in armor battling windmills. Cabinets. All of these things are quintessentially Spanish, but all in different ways. Spain has a unique history in comparison to other European nations, due to its proximity and frequent interactions with northern Africa. In fact, from 711-1492 CE, Moorish armies from Africa actually controlled most of Spain, with the Catholic Spanish kingdoms fighting back in a nearly 800-year long holy war called the Reconquista. Then, just as that ended, the Spanish Empire emerged through Columbus' voyage to the Americas.

So, Spain took a unique path through its history, and that's reflected throughout Spanish customs, traditions, beliefs, and arts. From the grandest cathedral to the simplest chair, Spanish styles reflect their history. As a result, Spanish furniture is as bold as sangria, playful as flamenco, and defiant as the conquistadors.

Overall Trends

This is a lesson on the general history of Spanish furniture, and while we could talk about furniture trends from the Stone Age all the way through the 21st century, we're going to focus on Spain's medieval era and Renaissance (roughly 1200-1700 CE). It was at this time that Spanish furniture really emerged as something distinct in its own right, and which set the tone for aesthetically Spanish tastes later on.

So, let's start with some general trends. Thanks largely to its extended holy war, Spain maintained a medieval attitude much longer than the rest of Europe. In their furniture, this was reflected in large wooden furniture that was often somewhat crude compared to other European styles. Spanish furniture had a rustic, rough quality to it, that suited the life on the military frontier, as well as the extreme climates of Spanish regions, like the Extremadura.

That being said, Spanish furniture was not without decorative qualities. Silk-weaving was a major industry in Spain, which found its way into cushioning for chairs and sofas. Silk velvet was popular among the wealthy, but perhaps the most definitive material for Spanish furniture cushioning was leather. Spanish leatherworking, particularly out of Córdoba, was internationally respected.

In terms of decoration, however, the biggest feature was the wood itself. The wood was not often turned but was often decorated with veneers, or inlays, set in intricate geometric patterns. This aesthetic is one thing that makes Spanish furniture unique within Europe because the designs are not European. They're Moorish, based in Islamic North African arts. The combination of Moorish ornamentation and Spanish medieval/Gothic foundations is what really sets Spanish furniture apart.

Spanish vargueno of the 17th century
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This may be best seen in the most definitive and distinctly Spanish piece of furniture, the vargueño. The vargueño was a writing cabinet with a drop-front that turned into a writing desk or shelf. Behind this was an interior composed of many shelves and drawers, in which were stored valuable documents, jewelry, and other items. When the writing shelf was up, the vargueño looked relatively plain an unadorned. However, when dropped it revealed a richly ornamented interior, covered in bright geometric patterns and very often gilded.

Styles

Those are the basic trends of Spanish furniture, so let's look at some actual styles. The most definitive style is called Mudéjar, which is something of a catchall term to describe any furniture that combines Moorish and medieval Spanish aesthetics from about 1200-1700 CE. Mudéjar furniture can be recognized by the intricate geometric ornamentations, use of inlay or veneer, and brighter colors of wood or other materials.

Mudejar chair of the 15th century
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