Since the beginning of human civilization, furniture design has been an important part of everyday life. Evidence of home furnishings survives from as far back as the neolithic period and continues an uninterrupted series of design and style revisions up until the modern day. Wherever and whenever people have lived, they’ve attempted to make their lives more comfortable and practical by furnishing their homes with various forms of seating, cabinetry and table top surfaces.
A wide range of stone furniture was discovered with the excavation of an archeological site in Skara Brae, Orkney dating from somewhere between 3100-2500 BC. The furnishings were constructed of stone due to a lack of wood in the area and consisted of dressers, cupboards, beds, shelves and various stone seating.
Many examples of ancient Egyptian furniture still survive thanks to the arid desert climate that serves to preserve organic material so well. Ornate, gilded boxes, beds, chairs and benches have been excavated from sites throughout Egypt and date back thousands of years. Although the most famous examples of ancient Egyptian furniture are ornate and elaborate, having been excavated from the tombs of the pharaohs, simple everyday chairs, tables and baskets have also been found.
The ancient Greeks were heavily influenced by the Egyptians in their early furniture designs. While many examples of ancient Greek furnishings still exist, much can also be learned by studying the ancient art found on vases and frescoes. Much information about Roman furnishings has been preserved in this way in places such as Herculaneum and Pompeii where entire streets and homes were protected for millennia by a thick blanket of volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Medieval period furniture, at least that of the upper class, commonly featured ornate carvings and mostly subdued colors, often black and various tones of grey. Linear lines were dominant with curved forms occurring only rarely.
The Greco-Roman design style experienced a major resurgence during the Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. The idea of Humanism was important during the renaissance and the furnishings of the period often reflect those concepts. Elaborate carvings, scrollwork and extremely intricate florid ornamentation were intended to showcase the exceptional skills of the craftsman who were hand-making each piece. A similar flourishing of culture also occurred outside of Italy around the same time period, mainly in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
The florid excesses of the renaissance gradually gave way to the quieter and much less ornamental Jacobean style. Straighter, narrower forms became typical while profiles in general were lowered and made more rectilinear. As time passed, Carolean furnishings began to regain some of the flamboyance of the renaissance, incorporating colorful upholstery, intricate carvings and tasseled trim.
Across the Atlantic, during the early colonial period of the United States, immigrants who had originally brought furnishings with them from “the old world”, were beginning to develop styles of their own. The sometimes harsh and utilitarian lifestyle of the early American settlers prompted furniture designs that were often simpler and sturdier, lacking in much of the decorative aspects of their parent styles. The Dutch, French and Spanish settlers also brought their own influences into the colonies. Distinctive climate and wood choices led the Spanish to develop the style known as Mission or Southwestern.
The eighteenth century brought enormous innovation to furniture design and is commonly regarded as “The Golden Age” of the master cabinetmaker. Familiar styles such as Queen Anne, William and Mary, Georgian, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Regency, Federal and Rococo, all originated during this period.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, mass-production and the demise of the hand-craftsman led to a flurry of imitation or revival styles. Excessive ornamentation in the form of appliques made of metal or wood, carvings, inlays and stencils are hallmarks of the several different revivals that originated following the advent of “assembly line” technologies and the ever increasing working populations of large cities.
Beginning in Paris in the 1920’s, Art Deco represented elegance, glamour, functionality and modernity. The symmetrical linearity of art deco was a distinct departure from the curving organic nature of the art nouveau designs preceding it. Art deco eventually fell out of favor and finally came to a close as a mainstay of design with the outbreak of World War II.
With the influx of new materials developed during the war, the Modern furniture style was born. Laminated plywood, plastics, and fiberglass allowed designers to experiment with a combination of newness, originality and technical innovation that conveyed a sense of the present and the future, instead of dwelling on past aesthetics as the previous revival styles had done.
Contemporary furniture designs continue to evolve as new fabrics, composite materials and even technology and electronics are constantly finding new ways to be incorporated into our modern lives. A brief look back at the history of furniture quickly reveals a dynamic trend of socially-inspired development that will surely continue as human civilization advances through the years to come.
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