Probably the first pieces to be in demand were the chest, the stool (prototype of the chair), the table, and the bed. From remote times Oriental furniture has exhibited carving and inlay on ebony and teak. Egyptian pieces 6,000 years old display an advanced form of woodworking, structure, and decoration and are characterized by inlays of gold and ivory and by carved supports representing animal forms. The Greeks favored the low couch, the tripod, and a chair with graceful, curved outlines. The Romans adopted Greek and Etruscan forms and during the imperial period developed many ornately decorated variations.
The heavily carved Gothic furniture reflected styles in architecture. Under Italian influence, the Renaissance brought richly decorated pieces designed specifically for domestic interiors. Peasant pieces were generally solid, painted or rudely carved, and slow to change in style. Provincial pieces followed in simplified form and in native woods; the period styles developed in the centers of culture. France became a leading influence with the Louis period styles, Directoire style, and Empire style.
English period styles include Elizabethan, in oak, with huge, bulbous supports; Jacobean, lighter and more comfortable, with spiral supports; William and Mary, introducing curved outlines, the trumpet leg, and the inverted-cup foot; Queen Anne, in walnut, characterized by cyma curves (double curves formed by joining a convex and a concave line), the rounded cabriole leg, and the broken pediment; Georgian, with its fine cabinetwork in a number of styles set by such designers as Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Robert Adam and his brother James, and Sheraton.
Early American furniture adapted current English styles in utilitarian form and in native woods—pine, maple, cherry. Later Phyfe, Savery, John Goddard, and other expert cabinetmakers added walnut and mahogany. The late 19th cent. brought mass production of machine-made furniture and saw an expression of flamboyant taste in golden oak of rococo design; this was followed by a reaction in the United States to the Mission style of rectilinear construction in weathered oak.
Around the turn of the 20th cent., the organic forms of the art nouveau style achieved popularity. In the 1910s and 20s many attempts were made to develop a new and at the same time functional design. The efforts of the Dutch group de Stijl are notable, especially those of Gerrit Rietveld. Modern materials were effectively employed by Miës van der Rohe in his famous Barcelona chair made of unadorned steel and leather, and contributions were also made by Saarinen and Bertoia. Other popular materials are welded metal and plastic. The use of fine woods in starkly simple design is the keynote of the elegant work that has been produced in the Scandinavian countries and won worldwide popularity since World War II.
See J. Aronson, The Encyclopedia of Furniture (3d ed. 1965); J. Gloag, A Social History of Furniture Design (1966); O. Wanscher, The Art of Furniture: 5000 Years of Furniture and Interiors (1967); K. McClinton, An Outline of Period Furniture (1972); M. Stimpson, Modern Furniture Classics (1987).
Furniture is the mass noun for the movable objects which may support the human body (seating furniture and beds), provide storage, or hold objects on horizontal surfaces above the ground. Storage furniture (which often makes use of doors, drawers, and shelves) is used to hold or contain smaller objects such as clothes, tools, books, and household goods. (See List of furniture types.)
Furniture can be a product of artistic design and is considered a form of decorative art. In addition to furniture's functional role, it can serve a symbolic or religious purpose. Domestic furniture works to create, in conjunction with furnishings such as clocks and lighting, comfortable and convenient interior spaces. Furniture can be made from many materials, including metal, plastic, and wood. Furniture can be made using a variety of woodworking joints which often reflect the local culture.
A range of unique stone furniture has been excavated in Skara Brae a Neolithic village, located in Orkney, Scotland. The site dates from 3100-2500BC and due to a shortage of wood in Orkney, the people of Skara Brae were forced to build with stone, a readily available material that could be worked easily and turned into items for use within the household. Each house shows a high degree of sophistication and was equipped with an extensive assortment of stone furniture, ranging from cupboards, dressers and beds to shelves, stone seats and limpet tanks. The stone dressers were regarded as the most important as it symbolically faces the entrance in each house and is therefore the first item seen when entering, perhaps displaying symbolic objects, including decorative artwork such as several Neolithic Carved Stone Balls also found at the site.
Traditional Japanese furniture is well known for its minimalist style, extensive use of wood, high-quality craftsmanship and reliance on wood grain instead of painting or thick lacquer. Japanese chests are known as Tansu, and are some of the most sought-after of Japanese antiques. The antiques available generally date back to the Tokugawa era.
Chinese furniture is traditionally better known for more ornate pieces. The use of uncarved wood and bamboo and the use of heavy lacquers are well known Chinese styles. It is worth noting that China has an incredibly rich and diverse history, and architecture, religion, furniture and culture in general can vary widely from one dynasty to the next.