furniture, properly such movables as chairs, tables, and beds; it is extended to include draperies, rugs, mirrors, lamps, and other furnishings. In its gradual evolution from periods of earliest civilization, the history of furniture parallels the progress of culture. Furniture has been made in a great variety of materials and decorated by many methods, the most usual being inlaying, painting or gilding, wood carving, veneering, and marquetry. Western furniture has drawn motifs of ornament from four main sources: Egyptian, Asian (Persian and Chinese), Greek, and Gothic.

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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