For much of human history, furniture has served at the intersection of design, function and comfort. The earliest known furniture dates back to the Stone Age, also known as the Neolithic Era, which began 12,000 years ago and ended around 3500 BCE.
Archaeologists have found ancient homes complete with Flintstones-esque stone furniture in the form of beds, places to sit, shelves and cupboards in a settlement near Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland that dates to 3215 BCE. Ancient Greek and Roman furniture was largely made of wood with some wicker chairs.
While this list will only scratch the surface of European and North American furniture, it gives an overview the history of furniture by surveying some of the most important movements and styles that continue to influence furniture design.
History of Medieval Furniture
It is difficult to trace the origins in the history of furniture. Some historians state that European furniture came from the Middle Ages, or the period from around 500-1500 AD. This time period is known for being simple and dark including with chairs and cabinets made from heavy oak, but some elaborate carvings exist in these materials.
History of Baroque Furniture
The Baroque style was especially popular in France of the 18th Century during the reign of Louis XIV. Furniture of the Baroque period is noted for its ornate design with pedestal or turned feet and curved legs and small rounded tables also became popular. Boulle cabinets of the Baroque period have elaborate inlaid wooden panels and decorations in metal, enamel or marble and other smooth stones were common.
History of Rococo Furniture
The history of furniture evolved from the mid-18th century up until about 1770, where the more ornate Rococo style displaced the Baroque furniture. The Rococo had developed out of the Baroque style.
If there is a single adjective that best characterises the Rococo it is frilly. Rococo furniture is lighter and rounder with long curves and intricate design work echoing and aestheticizing the complexity of the natural world.
History of Neoclassical Furniture
In all the arts, Neoclassicism sought to revive the glories of ancient Greece and Rome returning columns and severe mathematic order to design. Neoclassicism is noted for columns, the use of marble and straight orderly lines.
This style was spurred by the rediscovery of the city of Pompeii in 1748 and other architectural marvels of the ancient world in the late 18th century. People were fascinated by the ancient world and became eager to emulate the philosophy of these ancients.
Revivalist Furniture Styles
The 19th century was a period of growing industrialization. The period known as the Industrial Revolution drove more and more people out of agriculture and into town and cities, where new homes created a need for practical and mass-produced manufactured furniture.
This era is characterized by revivals of past styles, including Neoclassical, Gothic, and even the Rococo. The primary difference is that making furniture went from being a specialized trade for individual crafts people into the domain of industrial manufacturing. This also created a wider market for antiques.
North American Furniture
The history of furniture went through many changes in North America. There are many American styles of note prior to the 20th century, but North American styles generally emphasized function and use in their design than the ornate and elaborate European styles. Notable styles include Pennsylvania Dutch, early Canadian, and American Empire.
History of Shaker Furniture
One much loved North American style is that of the Shakers. The Shakers were a millenarian Christian sect who roots go back to England in 1747, but whose presence in the United States organized as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, in the 1780s.
So called for the energetic dance-like movements follows were experience during worship services, the Shakers were an egalitarian and peaceful sect who believed carnal relations were sinful. Denied all sexual pleasure, the Shakers are said to have channeled creative energies elsewhere, especially into detail-oriented work of making furniture that expressed their beliefs in simplicity, utility and honesty. Without reproduction, the sect has dwindled in number, but their furniture is still highly celebrated.
History of Art Deco Furniture
Art Deco is a modernist style began in earnest in France just before World War I and it permeated design, visual arts and architecture through the 1920s. Art Deco remains popular today for jewelry and the mark the style left upon architecture of the era—a period characterized by the appearance of skyscrapers in major cities, the advent of radio, the luxury ocean liner, and wider availability of automobiles.
Art Deco also was contemporaneous with the rise the motion picture as a mass art form and it has come to suggests for the glamour, luxury and style of classical Hollywood. Art Deco synthesized and refined past styles sometimes in contradictory ways with an emphasis geometric forms deployed with expert mechanical craftsmanship.
Strictly speaking, Depression Modern is late-Deco, but it is useful to think of Depression Modern as the mass-produced furniture style that supplanted Art Deco, and which all too often is retroactively lumped in together with Art Deco.
The influence of the Great Depression (1929-1941) and international reach of the style mark the major difference between the two. Depression Modernism is more subdued that Deco. The streamlining, shiny surfaces, gentle curves and futuristic mode of Depression Modern spoke to a hopeful spirit. New industrial materials like chrome, aluminum, and early plastics are common.
De Stijl was an influential art movement originating in Holland in 1917. Reacting to backward looking art movements, De Stijl which is Dutch for “the Style,” Neoplasticism, a fitting name as the movement embraced new manufactured materials. De Stijl wanted to appeal to universality by foregrounding abstraction divorced from the world at large.
This involved a reducing everything to pure forms and colour. As a result, De Stijl furniture looks hypermodern, with strong lines and shapes in bold primary colours as well as black and white (you can see why the band the White Stripes named an album after the movement).
Meaning “construction house,” Bauhaus was a German school of art and design founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919. Gropius wanted to group all art and design together. Bauhaus had a profound impact on architecture and modern art and design. Bauhaus furniture sought a perfect vision of industrial design with an emphasis on balance, harmony, proportion and function, using simple and direct shapes and colours. Modern furniture and the field of industrial design both owe a debt to Bauhaus.