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Furniture Began With Human Homes
It might have been a story of the Princess and the Pauper, for his background is unknown. The Princess married him and made him Egypt's King. Three thousand years later scientists opened his tomb and found the fine furniture of this young King, Tutankhamen.
Many were the carved and inlaid cabinets and chests, stools, chairs and beds. One solid ebony bed, much like our daybeds though Egypt's beds were without head boards, had a carved foot board inset with panels of gold and ivory. One stool, ornamented with ivory and gold, stood on crossed legs ending in duck's heads. Another, thought a kneeling stool, was covered with beaded linen. A chair, modern in line, had lion's legs and feet carved of wood with claws and fetlocks of ivory. A child's white painted chair had high back and animal feet.
Chair and stool seats swooped for comfort. They were of paneled wood and ivory, or were covered with rich material, sometimes flexible leather spotted with inlaid ivory to look like leopard's skin. Chair backs, shoulder high or more, were paneled with ivory and gold and inlaid with faience (glazed pottery), glass and semiprecious stones. Some had a top panel inlaid with a winged sun-disk of gold. Chair arms were animal forms, serpents, or paneled symbolical figures.
Table cabinets, graceful as Pembroke tables, had veneered sides, marquetry borders and straight legs. Their lids lifted by knobs. Within was space for the King's linens and head dress.
A domed chest, painted in miniature-like detail with exquisite colors, showed the young King at war and on the hunt. So inlay, marquetry, mounts of ivory, glass, pottery, metal and jewels, plus carving, veneering, painting, and the use of mortiee and tenon had reached perfection in Tutankhamen's furniture.
Ancient Near East Furniture
Tombs, grave stones and coins; paintings of walls, pottery, and miniatures; carved and inlaid stones and engraved seals, all reveal ancient furniture. The Bible describes it. So do ancient historians. Scholars were able to reconstruct Ashurbanipal's throne chair from the bronze mounts and ornaments in its wood dust at Nineveh.
Susa's seals from 3000 B.C. show ladder back chairs. Couches and tables had ball and ring decorated legs and feet, or animal legs ending in paw or hoof. Babylon's King Burnaburiash, 1400 B.C. sent thrones of "precious wood and gold" and couches of wood and ivory and gold to the daughter of Egypt's Amenaphis IV.
Greek gods of Olympus on a frieze of the Parthenon, sat on simple and beautiful stools. A stela from an Athens cemetery shows a chair with out-curving legs and back much like those in Marshall Field's Narcissus Tea Room which were styled after Pompeian furniture.
Roman furniture, made largely by Greek slaves, was simple in line, and often of chased bronze inlaid with silver or gold. Bronze and brass were used for table frames, and for tips on legs and arms of wood furniture. Fine grained woods from all over the Empire were imported, sliced into sheets of veneer, and glued to common woods for finest pieces.
Medieval Eastern Furniture
China's tables, chairs, stools, cabinets and folding screens were highly ornate, carved wood, often lacquered. Teakwood was a favorite. Flowers, dragons and good luck symbols marked the high relief carving. Chairs, like ancient Asian thrones, often were high and needed foot stools. Bedsteads were framed, curtained, highly carved, and often included cabinet shelves or built-in chair and table. Mother-of-pearl, purple sea shell, bronze, marble, lacquer, and ivory were inlaid. A Devil's Screen, just inside the house door, kept out evil spirits and passing gaze.
The Japanese bed was of pads, put away in daytime. Chests, hid behind panels, held the clothes. People sat or knelt on cushions. The low dining table folded away between meals, or small individual tables were brought from kitchen shelves. Lacquer was a favorite furniture finish except for carved woods, when the grain, wood color, and tool marks were preferred.
Ambassadors and travelers from Germany, Spain, France and Italy to Persia's shahs, tell of carpets over heavy felt on the ground. Around the walls were mattresses a yard wide, their covers stitched with silk or gold. Cushions of silk and velvet added comfort. Individual tables held food. The backs of throne chairs curved up at the top corners like Chinese roofs. Feet were often the "inverted flower form" -one petal on the floor, the other up a little, almost bracket-like.
Moorish invaders, Byzantine craftsmen, Crusaders, and travelers brought furniture from the East to Europe. Spain elaborately inlaid silver wire, brass, ivory, and motherof-pearl in her wood. Her vargueno (chestdesk) is probably her most famous piece.
Italy's walnut plus Greco-Roman tastes encouraged carving. Italy also adopted Eastern p o 1 y c h r o m e painting, intarsia (wood, stone and bone inlay), scagliolia (filling cut-outs with colored pastes), and scenic and portrait paintings by the masters. Her handsome marriage chests (cassoni) are her outstanding furniture.
The Renaissance did not stir the Germans from their love of solid service in furniture, but Gothic France gradually forsook the dark, small windowed houses with their flag stone floors, massive fireplaces, trestle tables, master's chair but household cushions, great chests and high-from-thecold-floor family beds with space for the honored guest. France pulled the armor closet (armoire) from the wall paneling (often hiding a secret staircase), and made it into a wardrobe. She blended Gothic or Norman carving of circles, interlacings and animals with Eastern designs and her own native flowers.
She extended her trade and travel, and thus enlightened and enriched, France turned her furniture into the solid Louis XIV style, lavish with marquetry, with ormolu (metal trim), tortoise shell and pottery. Her walnut, fruit wood, chestnut, oak and ebony were sometimes carved and gilded.
Louis XV elongated the S curves of the East and carved flowers over them. Pompeii's excavations revived the Classic styles. Louis XVI straightened the curves, reeded the legs, simplified the carving and perfected the proportions into a style some scholars rate as the finest the world has known.
English and American Furniture
England's hard-to-work oak kept carving simple and furniture massive. Her carved cupboards, linen fold paneling and bulbous legs gave way to Classic style in fruit woods and the new mahogany.
Chippendale topped his chair backs with "ears" like "Chinese upturned roofs" and put Chinese fret work in backs, as bracing design at legs, and in tracery or door "leadings." His S curved furniture is reminiscent of Louis XV. Hepplewhite and Sheraton favored delicate lines, and forms related to Louis XVI style. Adams' furniture was heavier.
In America Duncan Phyfe styled his furniture after Napoleon's Empire furniture, inspired by Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. Phyfe put "Empire" curves in the legs of his sofas and pedestal tables. He used much mahogany brought to him in our shipping trade. Chests with drawers and bookcase desks (secretaries) of this period are treasures.
Local carpenters crafted maple, black walnut, cherry, hickory, oak, or pine into a cradle the wife could rock by foot while her hands worked at family sewing, or other tasks. Some claim America's rocking cradle inspired the rocking chair. Others say it originated in Scandinavia. Certainly the cherry and the Boston rocker had their part in American history.
So have Colonial chests, be they blanket chests, brides' hope boxes, elaborate cheston-chest types, or the simple travel chests of cabin pioneers. Some collectors hunt the painted tulip Pennsylvania Dutch chests, others the tulip and sunflower Connecticut chests. Hadley of Massachusetts made initialed and carved chests. Elegant America had its mahogany highboys.
In the 19th century Biedermeier in Germany simplified styles, but the Victorian era put elaboration back in Western furniture. It produced the whatnot version of the collector's cabinet. It also produced the back-flaring chairs of rosewood, rose carved, such as Belter of New York made.
Mission furniture and England's Morris furniture revived simplicity of line and surface, but Art Nouveau and Moderne put curves back. So love of fine furniture, of ornamental woods, rare veneers, various inlays, carvings, metal trim, and handsome finishings, goes on in the world today, as it did in the golden days of ancient Egypt.