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The History of Furniture

Updated on September 22, 2014
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

Who remembers these? Vintage card catalog
Who remembers these? Vintage card catalog | Source

Furniture and Home Decor

From earliest times, humans have devoted much of their energy to creating and improving their environment. When they ceased to be nomadic, they began to make furniture to increase the comfort and usefulness of their dwelling places.

As wood has always been the favored material for furniture making, very few examples of early work have survived.

What we know of early furniture has come from the vase paintings and reliefs of people such as the Egyptians and Assyrians, the Greeks and the Romans. The early Egyptian cabinet-makers knew the art of decorating their creations by inlaying with precious stones and metals, although such furniture would have been in the possession of only the very wealthy. The ordinary people kept their few possessions in wooden chests and their beds were reed mats on mud benches.

Using Wood to Make Furniture

The woods most commonly used by the Egyptians were pine, walnut, teak and cedar. and tables were often inlaid with silver and ivory. Wealthy Romans had cooking utensils made entirely of gold and excavations in Pompeii uncovered examples of bronze and marble furniture.

Furniture in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, furniture was simple, usually consisting only of beds, tables, chairs and cupboards, all of which were portable. Ownership of things was still restricted to the upper classes. Under Norman rulers, furniture began to be used more and was artistically made, though rather heavy and sombre.

Antique buffet table
Antique buffet table | Source

Renaissance: Luxury Furniture

The development of more luxurious furniture began during the Renaissance in Italy. It was no longer purely utilitarian, but became much more decorative with influences from classical styles. It became very fashionable to have highly ornamented furnishings and craftsmen were aided and supported by rich patrons such as the Medici family in Italy. This vogue spread rapidly to other European countries.

The Italian fashions reached England during the reign of Henry VIII and the Jacobean and Restoration styles evolved directly from this. There was increasing use of upholstery and the present type of chair developed from its box-like predecessor.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Old French Enamel Mirus StoveAntique buffet tableAntique upholstered chairsGerman dresserPurple table and chairs, VictorianAntique tableAntique writing desk
Old French Enamel Mirus Stove
Old French Enamel Mirus Stove | Source
Antique buffet table
Antique buffet table | Source
Antique upholstered chairs
Antique upholstered chairs | Source
German dresser
German dresser | Source
Purple table and chairs, Victorian
Purple table and chairs, Victorian | Source
Antique table
Antique table | Source
Antique writing desk
Antique writing desk | Source

The Georgian Era

Chippendale and Sheraton were very famous cabinet-makers in the Georgian era, and architect and designer Robert Adam made a major contribution by harmonizing the furniture with the architecture of a house. These Englishmen all drew their inspiration from what is perhaps the most celebrated period of cabinetmaking in France: that of Louis XIV. This period and the subsequent rococo styles were notable for their extreme ornamentation and elaborate use of gilding and inlay.

During and after the French Revolution styles became more restrained culminating in the Directoire style which can be compared to the Regency period in England.

The style of the eighteenth century continued throughout the nineteenth century, most of the designs being more elaborate copies of earlier work.

Vintage Black & White French Bedside Table
Vintage Black & White French Bedside Table | Source

Modern Furniture

Early in the twentieth century, at the same time as the Futurists were inspired to produce art expressive of the machine age, furniture designers and architects started to make use of modern materials such as steel and aluminum and to make extensive use of glass.

The trend of furniture design during the twentieth century has been towards functionalism, which is the belief that the ultimate use of the article should be the main influence in its design.

The Elements of Style: The Art of Fine Furniture-Making in America Then and Now

© 2014 Paula Atwell

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    • Paula Atwell profile image
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      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @suzette That is fortunate! I love wood, and wish I could have all handmade pieces.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      I love furniture shopping even though I don't need any. My great-uncles in Italy were furniture makers and their pieces are lovely. I am fortunate to have a dresser and rocking chair made by them and they are beautiful. Your photos are beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    • Paula Atwell profile image
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      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Brenda Thanks for visiting and pinning. :) I know you find some fun old furniture and accessories in your hunts.

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 3 years ago from Canada

      Nothing quite like an older piece of furniture, is there? Nice introduction to the history of furniture.

      Pinning to my Storage & Organizing Pinterest board.

    • Paula Atwell profile image
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      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Connor Thanks, they really don't make them like they used to and the materials are quite different now due to cost. Love to hear more about your work.

    • Conner Coldiron profile image

      Veronica Coldiron 3 years ago from Columbus, GA

      I love this article! I remodel/redesign a lot of historic homes and it is sometimes a nightmare trying to explain to homeowners that an old furniture piece lying under the house or in the attic, that they want to throw out, could be cleaned up, repurposed and become a focal point in the décor. We found an old pie safe with copper punch covers in a barn behind an old home once that became the ideal focal point for the entire kitchen once it was finished and all it took was some elbow grease, Brasso and lacquer. I truly enjoyed reading about the history of furniture! I guess the old adage is true... they don't make them like they used to. LOL

    • Paula Atwell profile image
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      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Peg I distinctly remember being taught how to use those. :)

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      The card catalog in the first picture was so reminiscent of elementary school and junior high school libraries before the modern remodelers came along. I absolutely adore antique furniture and really enjoyed reading about its history and heritage.

    • Paula Atwell profile image
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      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @billybuc Thanks, Bill. You are probably right. And then it wasn't comfortable enough. :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm thinking a rock in the cave was the first chair. What do you think? :) I have to admit, I've never seen an article on the history of furniture. Congratulations on a first here at HP. :) And it was interesting!