Furniture

I. Introduction

Furniture, the usually movable articles in a room that equip it for use. The most common pieces of furniture are beds, chairs, tables, and chests.

II. Materials and Design

Historically, the most common material for making furniture has been wood, but other materials, such as metal and stone, have also been used. Furniture designs have reflected the fashion of every era from ancient times to the present. Whereas in most periods a single style dominated, a wide variety of old and new styles influences current design. Some of the most highly prized pieces of furniture used in contemporary homes, however, are antiques–pieces anywhere from 50 to 300 or more years old. Today the most astute designers are eclectic, and furniture ranges from innovative designs to adaptations of historical models for special needs, including carefully made reproductions based on early examples.

Even the basic requirements of furniture design are complex, for appearance has always been as important as function, and the general tendency has been to design furniture to complement architectural interiors. Indeed, some furniture forms were conceived architecturally, with legs designed as columns; others were at least in part anthropomorphic, with legs in animal forms. Furniture design ranges from simple to elaborate, depending on the pieces' intended use rather than on the period in which they were made. The earliest records, such as ancient Mesopotamian inventories, describe richly decorated interiors with gold cloth and gilded furniture. Some surviving ancient Egyptian examples are elaborate and were originally sheathed in gold, but many very plain pieces were also made in ancient times. In the history of furniture, however, the elegant work takes precedence because in general it has been the best preserved. In addition, elaborate designs reveal the most about a period because high style changes more frequently than other styles to reflect new ideas. The simplest work, made for the farmer or laborer, tends to be more purely functional and timeless; tables and chairs used by working people in 1800 BC are surprisingly like tables and chairs in farmhouses of AD 1800. Dutch genre paintings of the 1600s and early 19th-century American paintings depict rural interiors that often look remarkably similar.

III. History of Furniture

Reconstruction of the prehistoric house with any certainty is impossible, although all indications are that it contained furniture. A history of furniture begins with a discussion of the oldest surviving examples: those from the 4th Dynasty (2575-2467 BC) to the 6th Dynasty (2323-2152 BC) of Old Kingdom Egypt.

A. Egyptian Furniture

The dry Egyptian climate and elaborate burial procedures are in part responsible for the survival of pieces, which include stools, tables, chairs, and couches. In addition, wall paintings give insight into the design of Egyptian furniture. With respect to both design and construction, the methods used in ancient Egypt are followed wherever furniture is made today. For large pieces, particularly seating and tables, the mortise-and-tenon construction familiar in ancient Egypt is still in use, although the tenon may be replaced by a dowel to expedite production. The sides of more delicate boxes and chests were joined by dovetailing, a technique that persists in contemporary work. One ancient Egyptian stool illustrated on a wooden panel (2800? BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo) from the tomb of Hesire has animal legs as the supports. It does not differ much from a chair (1325? BC, Egyptian Museum) from the tomb of the New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamen.

A chair, table, couch, and canopy (2550? BC, Egyptian Museum) from the tomb of the 4th Dynasty queen Hetepheres at Giza were reconstructed from remnants of their original gold sheathing. They have animal legs, a solid chair back, and arm supports of openwork panels in papyrus patterns. The bed, higher at the head, has a headrest and a footboard. The relief decoration on some of the furniture consists of symbols of gods and scenes of religious significance. Other surviving tables and stools are restrained in design, with legs that are beautifully made but plain. It is conceivable that the pieces were originally ornamented with stamped metal sheathing, but wall paintings also illustrate simple upholstered pieces.

Extant examples and illustrations from wall paintings suggest the broad scope of decoration used on furniture. Gold sheets were applied to legs of chairs and tables; inlays of ivory and other materials were employed on panels of chests and other surfaces. The motifs of forms with legs as anthropomorphic and of storage pieces as buildings in miniature were popular in ancient Egypt and in succeeding cultures. See  Egyptian Art and Architecture.

B. Mesopotamian Furniture

Although virtually no examples have survived, inlays and reliefs provide an idea of what furniture from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley looked like. Tables, stools, and thrones are illustrated in works from about 3500 to 800 BC. A Sumerian standard–a box on a pole (3500?-3200? BC, Iraq Museum, Baghdad)–has shell inlays that illustrate very simple chairs and thrones. Also surviving is a Sumerian harp (2685? BC, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia) that has rich, colorful inlays and a bearded bull's head carved in the round and covered in gold foil. A stele, or carved stone slab, made about 2300 BC shows a backless throne that appears to have been elegantly upholstered but had very plain straight legs. The furniture shown in a relief (9th century BC, British Museum, London) of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II and his queen is more elaborate, with tables and thrones supported on trumpet-shaped and animal-form legs and embellished with relief decoration. See  Mesopotamian Art and Architecture.

C. Minoan and Mycenaean Furniture

Examples of furniture in the Bronze Age cultures at Mycenae on mainland Greece and in the Aegean Islands (see  Minoan culture) are equally difficult to find. Relief representations on Minoan rings and small bronze and terra-cotta representations provide most of the evidence. One splendid exception, the gypsum throne in the Throne Room at Knossos (1600?-1400? BC), suggests that function and materials were more important than design in the Aegean Islands, because the basic designs are less stylized on both the throne and the small terra-cotta pieces. The extant examples–stools, chairs, couches, benches, and chests–do not suggest the use of much elaborate decoration. One or two tablets have been discovered, however, that make reference to inlays and gold embellishments on furniture. A single extant ivory leg from Thebes is also elaborately ornamented. See  Aegean Civilization.

D. Greek Furniture

Greek furniture, like Mesopotamian, is best known from paintings and sculpture, as few specimens have survived intact. Details on vase paintings and grave stelae (tombstones) tell a good part of the story, but the frieze from the Parthenon and a group of miniature seated figures in terra-cotta and in bronze help fill in the gaps. A few marble thrones have survived, as have isolated wooden elements from actual Greek pieces. The available evidence suggests that Greek designers did not follow the free forms of the earlier Aegean examples; their tendency to base furniture ornament on architectural decoration, and the general symmetry and regularity of overall design, appear instead to follow Egyptian precedent. Nevertheless, although they resemble each other, the Greek couch and the Egyptian bed, for example, serve markedly distinct purposes. Used for eating as well as resting, the Greek couch was made with the horizontal reclining area at table height, rather than low and at an incline. The headrest was often curved to support pillows and no foot rest was used. Although the animal-form leg is seen occasionally, legs more often were a trumpet form or a rectangular design based on a columnar form. Stools were made in a variety of configurations. Folding stools with X-shaped legs and stationary stools with straight legs were made at least from the 6th century BC to the Hellenistic age (323-31 BC).

Both functional and plain examples as well as more elaborate models were created. A distinctive innovation of Greek designers is the chair known as a klismos, a light (or easy) chair with a back. Comfortable and very popular, it was used most in the Archaic and Classical periods (7th century to 4th century BC). The klismos is essentially plain, with legs curving out from the seat and a back support consisting of a simple rectangular panel curved inward from sides to center. Tables pictured in paintings are generally small. Rectangular tops appear to have been the more popular type, with support that consisted most often of three legs–mostly simple and curved but sometimes carved in animal forms–that were at times reinforced with stretchers near the top. Literary references and illustrations suggest that typical tables were light. They were moved in to serve individuals at a dinner and removed after the meal to allow space for entertainers to perform. Round tables of Greek origin were made in the Hellenistic period.

Chests in ancient Greece varied in size from those built on a miniature scale to monumental examples and in design from those with plain flat tops to the more architectural style with gabled lids. They were made variously of wood, bronze, and ivory, with architectural decoration. The traditional configuration of chests is a long-lived phenomenon; it is first found in ancient Egypt and remains evident in 19th-century folk examples. See  Greek Art and Architecture.

E. Roman Furniture

At first glance, Roman furniture design appears to have been based on Greek prototypes. In the first century AD opulent Roman design reflected strong Greek influence. The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide clear evidence of handsome domestic architecture and show the settings that required furniture. Pompeiian frescoes illustrate the use of furniture and suggest that a wider variety of forms was known. The source and date of new storage pieces that had been introduced in Hellenistic Greece are questionable. No secure evidence confirms the theory that cupboards were introduced during this period. Examples of cupboards on Roman frescoes may be copies of Greek paintings, but a cupboard from the house of the Lararium in Herculaneum has survived.

Extant examples indicate that the Romans made more marble and bronze furniture than Greeks did; also, the Roman designs were more complex, even though they employed the same basic vocabulary of ornament. In addition to the small tables common in Greece, larger, rectangular tables and round tables of various sizes were used. More practical designs were also introduced: There were tables that could be taken apart and others with folding bases. The richness of elegant inlays and elaborate work in ivory, bronze, marble, and wood are mentioned in Roman literature, and enough fragments exist to corroborate the early descriptions. See  Roman Art and Architecture.

F. Byzantine and Early Medieval Furniture

Although other surviving artifacts are abundant, there is strangely little evidence of furniture from Early Christian (3rd century to 7th century AD) and Byzantine (5th century to 15th century) periods, either in the East or the West. Byzantine art has been much admired. The richness of imperial churches in Istanbul, Turkey, and in Ravenna, Italy, indicates that there must have been a parallel magnificence in the furnishings of the palatial homes of ruling families. Byzantine mosaics suggest that, although classical ornament may have become stylized, it was still used between about AD 400 and 1000. A single Byzantine monument, the Throne of Bishop Maximian (550?, Archiepiscopal Museum, Ravenna), a masterpiece of ivory relief sculpture completely covering a wooden frame, was designed for ecclesiastical use. The throne nevertheless reveals the rich, stylized ornament of the period, and it suggests the manner in which secular Byzantine furniture design must have been conceived. See  Byzantine Art and Architecture.

The so-called Throne of Dagobert I (600?, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), a bronze folding stool, has animal legs familiar from Roman examples but rendered far more boldly. Manuscripts and an occasional mosaic from the 5th century to the 9th century provide further evidence that, although Roman influence persisted, changes in taste inspired artisans to render detail more abstractly and simply. Flat patterns replaced the high relief of Roman times. Stylistic conservatism, pronounced in the illuminated manuscripts of the period, was also evident in its furniture.

The 11th and 12th centuries–the Romanesque period–are known for the regeneration of spirituality and for the large number of new churches built in western Europe, but little evidence exists of the furniture of the period. Romanesque furniture design is best known from the assortment of 12th-century representations in French sculpture, in which simplified, schematic interpretations of Greco-Roman ornament are used. A few surviving turned-post (lathe-turned) chairs from 12th-century Scandinavia are Romanesque in spirit. Wooden chests, made somewhat later, are carved in schematic, geometric patterns that continue the Romanesque style. See  Romanesque Art and Architecture.

G. Gothic Furniture

Gothic architecture involved the use of pointed arches, flying buttresses, and other dramatic innovations to create spectacular spatial effects, but 12th-century furniture design was not influenced by the novel style. The new cathedrals were expressions of affluence, but for their interiors the rich patrons of the church appear to have favored simple, functional oak furniture enriched with tapestries and metalwork. The decorative elements of the Gothic, particularly the pointed arch, were not employed in furniture ornament until about 1400. Then, for more than a century, tracery and arches were carved on the panels of chairs, on chests, and on tables of every size.

In the 15th century a few new forms were introduced. One was a type of sideboard with a small storage area set on tall legs; it had display space on the top of the enclosure as well as on a shelf below it. Cupboards were made with either one or two tiers of storage areas enclosed with doors. Another important storage piece was the armoire, with tall doors enclosing an area of 1.5 m to 2 m (4 ft to 6 ft). Along with such architectural motifs as arches, columns, and foliate patterns appeared decorative carving based on hanging textiles, a motif known as linenfold. As a primarily northern European style, Gothic remained influential in furniture design into the early 16th century. See  Gothic Art and Architecture.

H. Renaissance Furniture

Renaissance painting, sculpture, and architecture developed in Italy before 1425, but Italian furniture design in the 15th century tended to be simple and functional. See  Renaissance Art and Architecture.

1. Italy

The first innovation in Italian Renaissance furniture was the cassone, a chest with elaborate carved or stucco decoration and gilt or painted finish; the designs were based on classical prototypes. Cassone forms were inspired to some degree by Roman sarcophagi; some early examples, however, had scenes illustrating the international Gothic romance, Le Roman de la Rose. Interiors in 15th-century paintings, such as those in the Dream of St. Ursula (1490-1495, Accademia, Venice) by Vittore Carpaccio and the Birth of the Virgin (1485-1494, Santa Maria Novella, Florence) by Domenico Ghirlandaio, suggest the restraint of Italian furniture design before the High Renaissance at the end of the 15th century.

Rich marquetry, imaginative carving, and the use of walnut in place of oak (which had been preferred for earlier work) characterized the more flamboyant efforts of the 1500s. A greater variety of forms and richer ornament were employed than in earlier periods. Portable folding chairs were revived, with seats of tapestry or leather. New solid-backed side chairs were developed that had carved backs and, instead of legs, solid carved panels as supports.

2. France

Even richer decoration is found on the French furniture of the 1500s that reflected Renaissance influence. The courts of Francis I and his son Henry II employed Italian artists who brought the Renaissance to France. During the reign of Henry II, designs by the architect Jacques du Cerceau were adapted for furniture. His complex juxtapositions of classical motifs were used for decorating carved furniture panels in the new Renaissance taste. The cabinetmaker Hugues Sambin, a major figure, published an influential folio of designs that featured works richly carved in ingenious designs. Distinctive examples reveal a profound understanding of the new classicism.

The impetus of the designers working in the 16th century carried the style into the 17th century. Characteristic tables with thin columnar legs and chairs with paneled backs, first made in the 1560s and 1570s, continued to be made after 1600. In the first decades of the 17th century, changes in design became subtle. During the reign of Louis XIII, from 1610 to 1643, furniture forms followed 16th-century models, but with greater delicacy and with an increased use of rare ebony and rich tortoiseshell veneers instead of carving.

3. England

English Renaissance design was essentially simpler than that of France. Less elegant carved detail, simpler decoration in turned parts, and flatter, more stylized foliate motifs were characteristic. Oak continued to be the predominant furniture wood in England in the 16th century. As in France, the interest in Renaissance design persisted until about the mid-17th century in England.

4. The Netherlands

This general interest in Renaissance forms is documented in several 17th-century publications. Two books of designs influential in the early 17th century were published in Amsterdam by Jan Vredeman de Vries and Crispin van de Passe. Dutch cabinetmakers created furniture closer in spirit to English designs than to those of the French. The Dutch were conservative, and Renaissance designs were still popular in the 1650s and later. One special form–the armoire, with a bold overhanging cornice and with doors made three-dimensional by the application of projecting moldings–is characteristically Dutch and was used over a long period by Dutch settlers in North America. Dutch influence–probably because of the design books–can be seen in other northern European furniture, although each area developed distinctive designs for popular forms.

5. Spain

In Spain, influences were more varied. The new ideas of the Renaissance affected design, but so did a long local Moorish tradition. Although Spain had long been deprived of direct connections with the East, the delicate patterns on tiles and leather, and the bold combinations of wood, iron, and gold (or gilding) that remained popular there in the 16th and 17th centuries, demonstrated the continuing Moorish influence.

I. Chinese Furniture of the Ming Dynasty

The 17th century was a period of growing cosmopolitanism. Maritime trade routes had opened a century earlier and were becoming a medium for new ideas and new materials. The 16th and 17th centuries were an ideal time for the West to discover Chinese furniture, for during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Chinese furniture making was at its height. Tall cabinets, graceful tables, chairs, and benches were made in subtle designs. Straight legs on tables and chairs often were finished with delicately curved edges. Brackets and stretchers used as reinforcements also functioned as decorative elements; these were restrained but showed to advantage the cabinetmaker's understanding of the beauty of wood. Asian decoration was well known in Europe in the 17th century and was probably an important influence on later Western design. Imported Chinese and Japanese lacquer chests were used extensively in Western settings, beginning in the 17th century. A number of examples have gilt stands, which were made in the West to adapt the lacquer chest to Western interiors. See  Chinese Art and Architecture; Lacquerwork.

J. Baroque Furniture

Baroque design is most evident in furniture of the late 17th century, decades after the Italian baroque architects Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini had first introduced their innovative approaches in Rome. In the early part of the century the new style had influenced surfaces but not shapes. In the last quarter of the 17th century, however, a growing number of changes took place. Among these was an increased use of caryatids, or supports in the form of female figures, along with scroll-shaped and spiral-turned legs that were different from the earlier Renaissance models.

At the very end of the 17th century, curved fronts were first used on large case pieces such as wardrobes and chests of drawers, reflecting the new baroque architecture. In chairs, rich carving on new high-backed forms came into fashion. Both English and Continental examples were made with caned seats and backs as an alternative to upholstery. Simple variations of these chairs were made with turned parts in place of the carved areas, but the same tall backs were used. See  Baroque Art and Architecture.

1. French Baroque

The most elegant and elaborate furniture of the day was made for the court of Louis XIV in France. The outstanding craftsperson André Charles Boulle created unusual forms and embellished them with inlays combining metal (pewter, gilt, bronze, or silver), tortoiseshell, and ebony in designs that were imaginative juxtapositions of classical motifs. These sometimes look as if the basic inspiration was ancient Roman fresco. Columnar legs, handsomely gilded, were used to support tables, chairs, and stands for chests.

2. English and American Colonial Baroque

Variations made in other countries limited the gilding and emphasized the new shapes. In England the influence is most easily seen in work from the reign of William and Mary, when marquetry was used most freely. On the North American continent, Renaissance design was still important in the late 17th century. American artisans used Elizabethan and Tudor models as partial inspiration for distinctively American "Pilgrim-style" efforts in oak, updated by being stained a walnut color. See  Elizabethan Style; See  Tudor Style.

K. Rococo Furniture

The baroque was popular in many areas until about 1730, when fashions changed, first in Paris and then in the rest of the Western world. The new style, now known as the rococo see  Rococo Style, called for greater delicacy in the scale of objects and a more intimate connection of furniture and people. Architectural ornament was less relevant, as pieces in Parisian interiors were conceived to be in scale with people rather than with rooms. See  Rococo Style.

1. French Rococo

French sources were of primary importance and influence and their results were the most elegant. Rococo began in the reign of Louis XIV and flourished during the reign of Louis XV. The French version included ambitious designs in a variety of materials that required great skill to execute. These were characterized by complex, sinuous forms that curved in every direction. Fanciful patterns were inlaid on layers of veneer that, in turn, were framed with ormolu (gilded bronze) outlining the legs, edges, and drawer fronts of a piece. Columnar legs were replaced by animal-form legs in a variety of curved shapes.

2. English Rococo

In England the rococo was much more restrained. Inlays were used rarely because cabinetmakers favored the use of walnut and mahogany veneers, which were handled with great skill to exploit graining. English designers–and those who were inspired by them–introduced cabriole (curved) legs with claw-and-ball feet for chairs, tables, and chests. This foot must have been inspired by the claw and ball known from Chinese bronzes (but not from Chinese furniture prototypes); it represents a popularization of Asian design. Toward the end of the rococo period in England, the London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale published a book of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director (1754), in which he presented the English interpretation of the rococo style. He was the first to categorize the varieties of rococo as French, Chinese, or Gothic and offered samples of each approach. Innovative French designs of the 1750s were translated by Chippendale into engraved designs of elaborately carved examples without the French use of ormolu or inlays. The element of the rococo emphasized by Chippendale and by most English artisans was its air of whimsy, achieved in French examples by a novel use of classical motifs. In the Director, Chinese and Gothic designs were included as additional ways of achieving whimsy; moreover, these designs could be executed more easily than those based on French sources.

From about 1740 to 1760, English designers worked consistently on a small scale. Some, however, chose to follow designs that were classical and more in keeping with an architectural style called the Palladian, in which Renaissance designs of the Italian 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio were scaled to 18th-century taste. The London cabinetmaker William Vile, who was employed by the Crown in the 1750s and 1760s, made some classical furniture along with rococo work. In the American colonies, the lightly scaled classical was as important as the pure rococo in furniture made between 1740 and 1780.

English and American chair designs are the exception to the rule of continuing classical emphasis. Fashionable designers in London developed elegant side and armchairs with wooden backs, a basic form different from the upholstered-back chairs favored on the Continent. At first, the backs were made with solid splats as the central support, framed by curving rails and stiles in a design that was a very free adaptation of Chinese chairs. Later, the frame was yoke-shaped, and the splat was executed in one of a large repertoire–rococo in spirit–of pierced-work designs.

In the English approach to furniture design, woods were handled with an appreciation of their distinctive qualities, and American cabinetmakers chose to follow the same path. In Europe, cabinetmakers were more intent on creating the appropriate rococo fantasies, using paint where inlays and ormolu might prove too expensive. Italian, German, Scandinavian, and even provincial French cabinetmakers followed this Continental manner of executing rococo design.

L. Neoclassical Furniture

Neoclassicism, a reaction against the rococo in favor of classicism, was a movement that began while the rococo was still at its height. The designers who initiated it advocated a return to ancient Greco-Roman sources rather than to the Renaissance. To suit 18th-century taste, however, they adapted the ancient models by scaling down the ornament to a delicacy that appealed to those bored with the rococo.

The question of who was responsible for this revolution in design is a disputed one. Robert Adam, the English architect, introduced the first of his neoclassical designs before 1760. Across the English Channel in Paris, however, an important collector, La Live de Jully, had furnished a room "à la grecque," or in the neoclassical style, at about the same time. Artists of English, French, and other nationalities were finding the ruins of Rome and Athens worthy of study and were becoming aware of the place of history in the study of design. Neoclassicism was the first conscious effort to revive a style, rather than to use elements of a past style as inspiration for new designs. The earliest efforts were less Roman than its designers seemed to believe, but the change to purer historicism occurred in a relatively short time. See  Neoclassical Art and Architecture.

1. French Neoclassicism

In France the first phase of neoclassicism is called the Louis XVI style, although his reign began in 1774 and prime specimens were made earlier. The classicism of this style manifested itself in a whole vocabulary of motifs derived from Greco-Roman sources, but the overall shapes also reflected the new style. Furniture shapes were simple and geometric: Rectangular, circular, and oval forms rested on straight, tapering legs that were either square or round in cross section. Garlands of flowers or drapery, architectural motifs such as paterae (medallions), dentils, Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian moldings, and related details were used as ornaments on neoclassical pieces.

2. English Neoclassicism

In England painted furniture became popular, and interest in inlaid decoration, which had all but disappeared in the rococo era, enjoyed a revival. The new neoclassical high style was appealing to a growing number, and design books communicated suggestions for new furniture forms, shapes, and decorations. The posthumously published Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide of 1788 by George Hepplewhite adapted some French and some traditional English designs to the needs of cabinetmakers seeking neoclassical suggestions. The most famous part of the book is the section on chairs that describes a number of shield-shaped backs, but Hepplewhite's repertoire was much broader (see  Hepplewhite Style). Popular neoclassical design in England is generally regarded as being inspired by Hepplewhite or by Thomas Sheraton, whose first book, the Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, appeared, in part, in 1791. Sheraton's complete work, published in 1802, included designs that were more literally classical, but what is popularly considered Sheraton are the rectangular chair backs shown in his first book.

M. Empire Furniture

The use of archaeologically inspired design increased in the late 18th century, and it appears to have influenced furniture made both in England and in Europe. This new emphasis marks a second phase of neoclassicism, called the Empire style because it was first identified with Napoleon's imperial efforts. Although the tendency to design furniture in ancient Roman style had begun before the French Revolution (1789-1799), Napoleon's designers, Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, were the most innovative. A collection of their designs for furniture and interiors was published in Paris in 1801. Beginning in 1796, designs inspired by Percier and Fontaine were also published in the Journal des Modes of Pierre de La Mésangère, which helped make the style international. The furniture plates in La Mésangère's journals appear to have been appropriated by Rudolph Ackermann for use in his London-based journal, Repository of Arts, Literature, and Fashions, which began in 1809. German-language publications disseminated versions of the Empire style throughout the Continent and Scandinavia.

More careful investigation, however, reveals special distinctive sources in each country. In England–where the style was called Regency Henry Holland, architect to the Prince of Wales beginning in the 1780s, designed furniture in the Empire spirit for royal residences and major country houses. Thomas Hope, a collector and connoisseur with great enthusiasm for the classical, was the author of Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807), which illustrates his conception of a classical style in which Greek and Egyptian influences predominate.

Empire became an international style, with Scandinavian, German, Italian, Russian, and American interpretations. The basic concept was constant, with ancient prototypes adapted to 19th-century taste. The major change, besides the increase in archaeological influence, was in scale. Designers were attempting to regain the sense of monumentality that had been lacking since the beginning of the 18th century, when it was diminished to achieve the human scale then desired. In the German-speaking areas, the style, recognized as typically middle class, has been called Biedermeier (see  Biedermeier Style), after a comic character who was supposed to satirize middle-class tastes. The name was applied as the style was going out of fashion in about 1850. Under whatever name, Empire was a lasting style; introduced before 1800, it did not disappear completely until the middle of the 19th century. In the United States, one cabinetmaker, the New Yorker Duncan Phyfe, who had begun activity in the 1790s, did not close his shop until 1847. His output included a grand variety of neoclassical designs, although he is best known for distinctive work made between about 1800 and 1820, in which light proportions and archaeologically correct details were integrated.

N. Victorian Eclectic Furniture

Concurrent with the neoclassical revival in the first half of the 19th century were revivals of other styles.

1. Gothic Revival

The Gothic, which Chippendale had used as a source of ornamental motif, was also of interest to Sheraton and a few later designers. In George Smith's Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808), a few Gothic designs are shown along with the predominantly neoclassical work. By the 1830s, interest in the Gothic was more profound. The Gothic was admired by some as a delightful reaction against the classical, while others regarded it as a Christian style to be preferred over the pagan. On the one hand, romantic enthusiasm favored ruins and asymmetry; on the other, there was a strong desire for design inspired by faith. Whatever the impetus, the Gothic Revival flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, in England as well as on the Continent. Research into Continental aspects, however, is far behind that of English historians, who have discovered the accomplishments of two generations of Pugins–the father, Augustus Charles Pugin, and his son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Essentially, revival of the Gothic involved the use of Gothic architectural ornament on 19th-century forms. Closely associated with the Gothic Revival is what Americans call the Elizabethan Revival, inspired by 16th-century and 17th-century English designs.

2. Rococo Revival

A completely different approach was taken by the designers who strove for a return to elegance. Beginning in the 1820s, the 18th-century rococo was the inspiration for a revival–actually a reinterpretation–of Parisian rococo design. The rococo revival was popular in England, on the Continent, and in the United States. The American rococo revival, which flourished between about 1840 and 1860, is possibly responsible for the most distinctive furniture. One New York manufacturer, John Henry Belter, obtained four patents for improvements in production that enabled the Belter shop to make flamboyantly carved work curved to the extreme by using laminated wood. Belter and contemporaries in Europe as well as in the United States found inspiration in baroque as well as rococo ornament.

3. Renaissance Revival

By the 1860s the rococo fad had subsided and Renaissance Revival became fashionable. Renaissance was defined very broadly, because the revival style included neoclassical motifs as well as those based on French Renaissance models. A revival of Louis XVI design was favored by some, but in general the new style was characterized by large, straight-lined forms veneered in dark woods and decorated with inlays, low relief, and incised linear decoration. French, English, and Continental examples include a broad range of decoration that is more elegant than that on most American examples.

O. The Revolt Against Mass Manufacture

The striving for elegance inspired a certain amount of fakery. Veneers were used to cover up cheap woods, and both the carving and inlays that embellished low-priced stylish furniture were poorly executed.

1. Arts and Crafts Furniture

In reaction to mass-produced sham, the Arts and Crafts movement was established in 1861 by the English poet and designer William Morris. Along with such associates as the architect Philip Webb and the Pre-Raphaelite painters Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones (see  Pre-Raphaelites), Morris sought a return to medieval handcraft traditions. Together, the group produced designs for every branch of the decorative arts, with the intent of elevating them to the level of the fine arts. Their products, including furniture, were much admired for their beauty and consummate craftsmanship and were widely copied. By the 1890s, the movement had spread to the Continent and North America. The influence of Morris and his followers was enormous; their designs are often considered the wellspring of modern furniture design. Morris's ideas were popularized by the English architect and writer Charles Eastlake in his hugely successful Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and other Details (1868). Eastlake advocated a return to simple, rectilinear designs inspired by country work, executed in oak and various fruitwoods. In the United States, where Eastlake's book became a decorating bible, the simplicity was often embellished with such luxurious additions as ebonized wood, gilding, and inlays.

2. Art Nouveau Furniture

Directly fostered by the Arts and Crafts movement was the style called art nouveau, which flourished between the 1890s and 1910 in all of the arts. Art nouveau may be characterized as a style derived from organic forms that convey a sense of movement, exemplified by the famous "whiplash" curve found in many art nouveau works. In furniture, its early exponents were the Belgian architects Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta, who furnished the interiors of their buildings with pieces designed to complement the sinuous forms of the architectural settings. In France, the architect Hector Guimard, creator in 1900 of the graceful Métro (subway) stations in Paris, also designed similarly asymmetrical, heavily carved free-form furniture. The noted glassmaker Émile Gallé also designed some of the most opulent art nouveau furniture, in which plant and flower motifs predominate. Louis Majorelle produced luxurious furniture, again inspired by forms from nature, and went on to become a notable art deco designer after World War I (1914-1918). The Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh produced, in his unique interpretation of art nouveau, chastely beautiful furniture. Characteristic pieces are of oak painted white, with elegant inlays and appurtenances of metal or stained glass in curvilinear, abstracted plant forms.

P. 20th-Century European Furniture

Reform and revolution in the arts, including furniture design, marked the turn of the century. Prominent among the leaders of the revolt was the Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, who, with other architects and artists, founded the Vienna Sezession (see  Sezessionstil) in 1897 and the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) in 1903. The Werkstätte produced, among other types of decorative arts, furniture in cubicular forms that contrasted radically with the art nouveau obsession with curvilinear forms. They are reminiscent of Mackintosh's restrained designs, which were much admired by the group. The right angle was used consistently, and detailing was rigidly austere. Sezessionstil was the precursor of two major 20th-century styles: the German Bauhaus and the French art deco.

1. Bauhaus Furniture

The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, by the architect Walter Gropius, was a comprehensive school of art and architecture that proved to be one of the most influential forces in the development of 20th-century art. Classic contemporary furniture, still being manufactured, was designed by its most renowned architects, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Breuer designed his "Wassily" armchair, of chrome-plated steel tubing and canvas, in 1925 and his much-imitated cantilevered side chair, of tubing with wood-framed cane seat and back panels, in 1928. Mies created his world-famous Barcelona chair, a masterpiece consisting of two elegantly curved X-frames of chromed steel strips supporting rectangular leather cushions, in 1929. The aim of both architects was to devise aesthetically pleasing furniture for mass production.

2. Art Deco Furniture

Art deco, although its name is derived from the 1925 Paris exposition of decorative arts, can be traced back to the first decade of the 20th century, especially to the sharply defined geometric forms of the Sezessionstil. The Bauhaus concern with the use of new materials also had its influence. The art deco style persisted through 1939 and has had a revival of interest and even imitation in the 1970s and 1980s. The most accomplished art deco designers were French: Louis Majorelle, André Groult, Pierre Chareau, and Jacques Émile Ruhlmann. Their pieces have a streamlined richness that owes as much to superb handcrafting–lustrously finished rare woods with inlays of such exotic materials as ivory in angular, abstract designs–as to their daring geometric shapes. The style was rapidly debased, however, by shoddy mass-produced pieces.

3. Scandinavian Furniture

Some of the most widely admired contemporary furniture originated in Scandinavia, especially in the years following World War II (1939-1945). To name two of a host of designers, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen created laminated wood furniture of exquisite proportions and eminent practicality for mass manufacture.

Q. 20th-Century American Furniture

Until 1946, furniture designers in the United States were, with few exceptions, overshadowed by their European counterparts and were heavily influenced by them.

1. American Furniture to 1939

American arts-and-crafts movements led at the turn of the century to the establishment of numerous ateliers and small factories, such as that of Gustav Stickley. Stickley created the mission style, ostensibly based on old Spanish furniture in the California missions. His carefully constructed oak furniture, made between 1900 and 1913, was rectilinear, simple, and utilitarian, with decoration limited to the handsomely crafted hardware. American mass manufacturers took up the mission style with a will and produced great quantities of ponderous imitation Stickley.

With the exception of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who designed furniture primarily for his own use, the United States produced no outstanding art nouveau furniture. Art deco flourished in the United States, mostly in mass-produced furniture of lesser quality. A notable exception is the work of the studio of Donald Deskey, which in 1932 created the palatial art deco interiors and the furniture of Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright also designed furniture, but its idiosyncratic appearance defies categorization, since the furniture design was entirely subordinated to the design of the building; the same motifs appear in both. Wright consistently favored built-in furniture, which tended to merge with the architecture.

2. Contemporary American Furniture

In the decade following World War II, many American furniture designers came to prominence. Among the best known were the architects Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Adapting wartime technology in the use of wood, metals, and plastics, they collaborated on the design of the so-called Eames chair and ottoman, constructed of subtly curved molded plywood with deeply padded leather upholstery, set on a metal pedestal base. In 1956 Saarinen designed an entire range of pedestal furniture in molded plastic and metal; the white chairs, in silhouette resembling a wineglass, have loose cushion seats in bright fabrics; the tables, ranging in size from side tables to conference tables, have tops of either marble or wood. These, like many other well-designed modern pieces, have been copied extensively by mass manufacturers. Other gifted designers included the sculptor Harry Bertoia, who in 1952 produced the lightweight wire mesh chair that bears his name, manufactured by Knoll Associates; Florence S. Knoll, like Eero Saarinen and Bertoia a graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and later president of Knoll International, New York City; and Paul McCobb, who based his widely marketed Planner group on simple and functional 18th- and 19th-century Shaker furniture.

By the 1990s furniture styles had proliferated to such a degree that literally hundreds of examples existed. The positive aspect of this stylistic glut was the enormous range of choice it offered, from classic modern pieces still in manufacture to "high-tech" medical and industrial furnishings, from antiques of any period (or costly reproductions of them) to inexpensive do-it-yourself unassembled furniture in any style desired.

See also  Chinoiserie; Folk Art; House; Interior Design; Rugs and Carpets; Wood Carving.

Contributed By:

Marvin D. Schwartz, M.S.

Editor, Antiques Monthly. Former Curator of Decorative Arts, Brooklyn Museum. Author of New York Times Book of Antiques and Collectors Guides to Antique American Glass, Ceramics, Silver, and Clocks.

HOW TO CITE THIS ARTICLE

"Furniture," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

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