About Furniture




Prehistoric stone house at Orkney, Scotland with built-in benches and sleeping places.

Very few examples of furniture from ancient Egypt, Western Asia, Greece, Rome and prehistoric times have survived to be studied.   Most articles which have survived have been preserved in the tombs of kings and high dignitaries. Native woods used for furniture of this age included acacia, sycamore-fig, tamarisk and sidder. Some imported woods such as cedar, cypress, juniper and ebony were also used.



A mid-sixteenth century master-carver's workshop with hand-carved linen-fold panel inserts.

Some important changes in furniture construction took place in the sixteenth century. Frame-and-panel construction allowed for lighter furniture which was easier to move. This caused a separation from the methods of the turners and carpenters, and a joiners guild formed that helped to set the standards of quality furniture making. Oak was still used but was beginning to be replaced near the end of this century by walnut, as it had a finer grain making it easier for carving. Carving was largely the favored method of decorating furniture. The chest of drawers and upholstered furniture were also introduced late in the 16th century.



Much of the furniture of the seventeenth century seems to be more familiar to us today than that of the sixteenth century.  Furniture built in this century began to escape the influence of fashion and richness for the principle of practicality and function. It was difficult for some, especially the wealthy and members of nobility, to stray very far from the most exquisite and exotic furniture.  The growth of trade allowed for importing of exotic furniture and materials from India and adjacent countries.  Lacquering and japanning were very popular methods of finishing furniture.  Oak was still used but walnut was being used even more, as well as other imported exotic woods.  The cabinet on a stand and framed wall mirror and table ensemble were very popular for displaying collectibles.



Many furniture types evolved during the 18th century and many of these styles are considered current even today. Furniture styles of this century reflected ideas of comfort and luxury. More people were able to own furniture because of the growth of the middle class. Furniture in the first half of the 18th century evolved in reaction against the formal, elaborate period of Baroque furniture of the 17th century. Rococo furniture was characterized by asymmetrical scrollwork, decorative motifs with informality and comfort in mind and originated in France. In the later half of the 18th century, Rococo furniture caused a reaction and a return to Neoclassical furniture. Neoclassical furniture was characterized by the use of classic designs from ancient Greece and Roman art and architecture. Some of the more recognizable styles of furniture from this era include: Traditional, Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Adams Brothers and Sheraton. Walnut was the predominant material used in this era. Mahogany and other imported woods like ebony and satinwood were also used.



Changes in furniture in the first half of the 19th century were greater than the previous 200 years. Not only were they changes of style, but of technology as well. Technological changes however, occurred more slowly. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had a tremendous influence on furniture style during his reign in the early part of the 19th century. Primary materials used were mahogany solids and veneers. After the fall of Napoleon's Empire, several styles of furniture evolved in reaction against the Neoclassical design. Even though new styles of furniture were desired, many retained familiar details of furniture from Gothic, Rococo and Renaissance furniture. One note worthy designer of this time period was Duncan Phyfe. Phyfe was the only American cabinetmaker for which a period or style of furniture was named. His designs are still popular today. Near the middle of the 19th century many innovations took place in furniture construction. Coil springs in upholstered furniture, metal furniture, laminated and bentwood furniture and even paper mache were utilized in furniture construction. These innovations, along with poorly manufactured furniture, led to yet another movement in furniture in the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th century.



Furniture from the second half of the 19th century up to the period of time of the First World War was not as innovative from a technical standpoint as that from the first half of the 19th century. There was essentially a rebellion against innovations in furniture construction and a desire to return to simplicity in design and construction. Art Nouveau furniture presented new ideas at a time when factory production on a large scale was eminent. This furniture style developed new designs which were not derivatives of historical styles. Popularity of this style peaked around 1900. Arts and Crafts furniture emphasized simple, utilitarian design; a reduction of excessive decoration; use of traditional materials; and the employment of "honest" craftsmanship. The Arts and Crafts movement rejected the industrialization of furniture manufacture. Arts and Crafts furniture was very popular in the United States. Mission furniture was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and designed by American furniture designer, Gustav Stickley. Another important American designer of furniture and architect of this time period was Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's furniture designs reflected his ideas in architecture and he often designed furniture specifically for the buildings he designed.



Art Deco furniture began before the First World War as a reaction against Art Nouveau. Art Deco furniture is characterized by limited use of ornament, simple shapes, emphasis of fine craftsmanship and use of precious and exotic materials. Genuine Art Deco furniture was very expensive and afforded only by the wealthy. Following the Wall Street crash of 1929 the International style was developed in efforts to help make furniture more affordable. International style was influenced by the importance of utility, industrial process, and materials. Once the effects of the depression had eased, American Modern furniture gained popularity in the United States. It was characterized by sleek, shiny surfaces, bold shapes with curving elements contrasting with straight lines and the look of polished metal.



The furniture industry was effected drastically in Europe by World War II.  Utility furniture was introduced in Britain due to material shortages during the war.  It was generally made of oak or mahogany and well built.  The American furniture industry was affected little by the war. American designs were inspired by the latest technology and materials.  In addition to metal and plywood, fiberglass and plastics were being used in furniture.  Furniture of the 50's and 60's were pure statements of form and technology.  Scandinavian and Italian designed furniture was also popular and known for its quality.  Pop Art furniture was a trend in the 60's which used oddity, amusement and satire which reflected the social and political upheaval of the time.


While some furniture styles have lasted only a few decades, others have reoccurred throughout history. Hopefully, this brief history of furniture will help guide your decision in your selection of  furniture.