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A Brief History Of Furniture

( Original Published 1917 )

One of the foremost interior decorators of the country recently said that his greatest trouble came with otherwise cultured women who had the idea firmly fixed in their minds that there were just three styles of furniture. All straight-lined furniture, to them, is mission, all mahogany with glass knobs is colonial, and all painted or gilded furniture is Louis the Sixteenth!

Although there are many more than three styles in furniture, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to give even an approximate number. Timms and Webb, in a recent work illustrating furniture from about 5000 B.C. down to the present day, give thirty-five distinct styles. Other authorities, however, differ greatly. Many of the styles blend so gradually into those preceding and succeeding, that, if a line is drawn between them at all, it must be purely arbitrary.

The furniture of the ancient has little bearing upon our needs today - a fortunate circumstance, considering our meager knowledge. We know that the Egyptians constructed their household furniture in stone, the Greeks and Romans in marble and bronze, and the people of the Middle Ages in wood. Little of the furniture of that time is now in existence. In fact, our knowledge is chiefly due to old drawings, usually in the form of tapestries representing historical events. In these old records the furniture is merely a detail, an accessory used in the background to illustrate a situation. A bench or settle figures in an interview between a knight and a lady, a chair of state is rudely indicated in the story of a coronation ceremony, or a long banquet table serves as a center about which valiant warriors gather. Without the aid of these manuscripts, if they may be called such, all domestic furniture made prior to the thirteenth century would be largely a matter of conjecture. Fragments from many of these manuscripts have been fitted together, so that we now have a fairly clear picture of the life and homes of the people of that time.

The house, or home, of the Middle Ages contained one large room called the heal, which served as a dining, living, and sleeping apartment. Adjoining it was the bower, or chamber for the ladies of the household. There was little furniture in the main room. A long rude table, composed of a board laid upon trestles, occupied the center of the floor, and about it were placed rough stools and benches for the members of the family with the exception of the lord and his lady. For them were placed two rudely constructed chairs, usually the only chairs in the house. The walls were hung with cloths or tapestries bearing legends of the time, which served to keep out wind and cold. A hearth fire placed below an opening in the roof furnished the necessary warmth, and illumination was provided by means of torches and extremely primitive lamps.

The bower contained a bed, sometimes a bench or stool, and always a chest of some kind. The chest was the most important article in the house and hid all valued possessions.

Toward the latter part of the Middle Ages the chairs and chests were decorated to some extent. The Gothic style of architecture became the vogue, and the pointed or Gothic arch and Gothic carving were introduced into the construction of furniture. The English coronation chair, showing the arch and the quatrefoil, an ornamental foliation having four lobes or foils, was built at this period, and happily has not been destroyed in succeeding centuries.

During the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, the Gothic style of architecture endured. The pointed arch, the trefoil, the quatrefoil, and simple tracery were used upon massive furniture, the Gothic treatment being confined mostly to decoration, the construction little affected by it. Toward the close of the fifteenth century the carving became heavy and more complicated, the lines of the furniture less beautiful, and animals and grotesque heads were combined with Gothic details.

The plan of the home remained much the same, distinctly feudal in character. Chests became elaborately carved and inlaid. Beds were surrounded by carved and latticed walls. Rude tables took the place of the board and trestle, and the chairs were heavily laden with ornamentation. Only one distinctly new article of furniture seems to have appeared during these two centuries, and that was the cupboard, upon which a wealth of ornament and detail was heaped.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century a great change took place in all handcraft. A new force born in Italy gradually spread throughout Europe and supplanted Gothic art. The Renaissance was a sudden spontaneous outburst of intellectual energy in the arts and inventions, knowledge and books, which had long lain neglected during the Middle Ages. The awakening began in Italy, and the whole country seemed all at once to be endowed with an instinct for the beautiful, and also with the capacity for producing it in every form. From Italy the reform wave spread rapidly to France and Spain, then to Germany and the Low Countries, and at last to England and the new world of America.

One often hears the Renaissance spoken of as a thing of the past, but we are still in the onward movement although the first vigor is over. At the first no article of furniture was too commonplace to receive the attention of the greatest artists of the day. Designs were made with reference to their setting, and the furniture for the home became less heavy and clumsy, so that it no longer was suggestive of the cathedral or the abbey. The household appointments were for the first time in history made with a careful regard for the needs of the owner, his station in life, and his manner of living. The homes of the early Renaissance began to take on a harmony as a whole, as well as a wealth of exquisite detail, which had hitherto been absent, but which we of the present day are still striving to perfect.

Before many years had passed, homes began to look more comfortable. Chairs, benches, and tables were loosened from their stiff positions against the walls, and new furniture was invented and added, as occasion and need arose. Chairs became upholstered, tables gained more beautiful lines and exquisite carving, and cabinets and chests of drawers augmented the old cupboard, and dower coffers. Clocks, mirrors, and screens became universal. In the palaces all was luxurious beauty. Sunken panels in the woodwork were ornamented by carved rosettes in high relief, often gilded. The halls were hung with exquisite tapestries and massively framed pictures, and the horizontal beaming of the ceilings, in its complexity, has come down to the present time as a beautiful example of the period.

From Italy, the spirit of the Renaissance spread to France, but here the transitional period was of longer duration, due to the Gothic art being more firmly rooted in France than in the south. The ornamental woodwork of the French in the early years of the Renaissance differs strongly from the Italian work of the same period. It is lighter, more delicate, the carving more open, and the whole less dependent upon the antique models. In the cabinets the furniture makers seem to have reveled especially in use of their talent. The construction of this article gave opportunity for artistic shaping and decoration which was impossible in bed, chair, or table.

The great devotion of time and skill which the medieval workmen spent upon the chest was now lavished upon the cabinet of the Renaissance.

In Germany, and the Low Countries, as in Spain also, the Renaissance developed on original lines. A simpler, sturdier form arose than that of France and Italy. Heads and grotesque masks were introduced with good effect into cabinet work. Marquetry was excelled in by the Dutch, and in Flanders a distinct type of chair arose with turned woodwork and cane seat and back. The Flemish style, more than any other, influenced the Spanish Renaissance. There are many chairs from that period, the woodwork much like those in Flanders, the back and seat of stamped or carved leather.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the Renaissance had reached England, and a style arose there called the Tudor, which was a mingling of the Italian, French, and Flemish, the latter pre dominating. We Americans are especially interested in this style because the chairs which the first colonists brought over from England belong to this period, and the carved chairs made in this country in the early days show the Flemish-Tudor influence.

This style became more fixed and distinctly English after Elizabeth came to the throne. From that time on it was known as the Elizabethan, but there is really no distinction. A style of carving known as the linen fold and the strap work was used especially upon cabinets. The Jacobean style was an outgrowth of the Elizabethan, and was very similar, but of a lighter and more graceful construction. This style endured from the accession of James I until the end of the seventeenth century. The "thousand-legged table," in England called the "gate-leg table," is a product of this period as was also the wainscot chair, a combination chair and table in which the back of the seat formed the top of the table. The turned furniture legs of the Flemish naturally gave rise to the more graceful spiral leg. The finest type of spiral was carved by hand and was very beautiful. It was used for tables, chairs, and elevated cupboards. English oak was the chief material, but later in the seventeenth century a great change was made by the introduction of walnut. This did not lend itself to easy carving, so paneling and marquetry, with applied drops, spindles, and nail heads were used.

The seventeenth century closed with the furniture of Louis XIV, a style which ever since that day has been misunderstood and misused. It was designed by a man named Andre Boulle, who, with his brother artists, perfected a type well suited to pompous and luxurious court life. It was heavily ornamented with shell and brass in what was called the rococo style of decoration. The legs of tables and chairs were at first straight and then carved, inlaid and veneered with gilt or brass. The furniture, although ornate, was consistent with its surroundings, and was not without beauty, inasmuch as beauty of construction was never lost sight of.

By the time of the beginning of the reign of Louis XV French furniture had changed somewhat in its character. Decoration grew more and more ornate, and the magnificent and stately extravagance of Louis XIV turned into a daintier but no less extravagant style. There was more variety in design and a larger use of carved metal ornament and gilt bronze. Shells, shaped foliage, roses, seaweed, and strings of pearls elaborated all designs, and were introduced principally by Charles Cressant, a great artist of that time. There are still existing many beautiful examples of his work. Some of the wood which he used was left in the natural finish, but more often it was painted, enameled, gilded, and carved. The legs of his chairs were curved and the arms and backs were also curved, carved, and gilded. Gobelin, Ambusson, and Beauvais tapestry, with Watteau designs, were used for the upholstery. An air of gayety, richness, extravagance, and beauty was given by all the furniture of this time, which, while not fitting in with our modern ideas of beauty as applied to use, still was well adapted to its own time.

Toward the latter part of the reign of Louis XV the furniture became too excessively rococo in style, due to the influence of another artist, Jules Aurele Meissonier, who brought into French use some phases of the decadent Italian taste of that time. He believed in putting curves and convolutions everywhere, broke up all straight lines, and disregarded all rules of symmetry. He carried the rococo style to its limit in lavish decoration, and as his power of invention was marvelous, his output of designs was very great. The furniture designed after the ideas of this man was not beautiful and is too often accepted by people today as the typical style of Louis XV. The greatest contribution of this later furniture of Louis XV was of a negative character. By its extreme extravagance it brought about a reaction against the ornate rococo school which influenced all succeeding furniture making.

Louis XVI furniture is in pleasant contrast. It was characterized by simplicity of construction and severity of ornament. The rococo details disappeared, and once more antique models were sought for decorations as well as for forms. Straight lines replaced flowing scrolls, horizontal bands superseded fantastic moldings, cupid and rose-garlanded panels gave way to rectangular spaces decorated with classic emblems. In chairs and tables the supports were fluted, tapering slightly at the base. The oak leaf, laurel, and bay leaf were often used in the scheme of decoration. Gilding, inlay, and enamel were still often used, but during this period the first mahogany was imported, and many beautiful pieces of furniture were constructed of the new wood alone. The furniture of Louis XVI shows its relationship very strongly to the furniture of Louis XV. It is quite remarkable that a style which was the direct outgrowth of a former period should have so completely absorbed all of the good qualities and none of the bad qualities of its predecessor.

During this time the furniture of the Dutch people had been finding its way into England and influencing English design.

But it was not until the reign of Queen Anne that the Dutch and English designs were completely assimilated. For this reason the perfected style was known by the name of the sovereign reigning at that period. The Queen Anne furniture was of great simplicity and grace. The earliest chairs and tables had cabriole legs and plain Dutch feet, and the chairs had the solid splat and spoon-shaped back with rounded ends to the top. In the later Queen Anne chairs a modified Spanish foot was sometimes used. A small amount of carving was sometimes used in decoration, but it was always subordinated greatly to the graceful lines of the furniture.

The Chippendale brothers of England, in their earliest work, copied to a great extent the Queen Anne models with cabriole legs and modified Dutch feet. Very soon, however, they developed their own originality and used the ball and claw foot, and pierced and carved the splat in the chair back. Later, the straight-legged Chippendale chair came into favor, and the Chinese art influenced the carving, making it more delicate and fantastic. The later chairs also showed French and Gothic tendencies, and were not nearly as successful as the early models. The chief characteristic of the Chippendale chair is usually a pierced splat richly, and often fantastically, carved, surmounted by a bow-shaped top-piece turning down in the middle and up at the ends. The one exception is what is called the ladderback chair, but in this, too, the bow-shaped feature is distinct.

The Chippendale brothers worked entirely in mahogany, that wood having been imported for the first time just before their day. If they had had to work in either oak or walnut, it is doubtful if the results would have been so beautiful. Each style is greatly influenced by its own environment, and it i's amusing to know that the reason Chippendale and other furniture makers of the eighteenth century constructed their chairs with broadly spreading arms, made them without arms entirely, and also invented the settee, was because the women of that day wore immense hoop skirts!

Scarcely less beautiful than the Chippendale style is the Hepplewhite. Hepplewhite's work is more delicate and dainty. He used inlay very effectively, straight, tapering legs and spade feet. His shield-shaped chairs have brought him the greatest renown, perhaps, with the exception of his serpentine sideboards, which are strikingly graceful. He worked with a man named Shearer, whose eye for proportion was indisputable. It is unfortunate that Hepplewhite's construction was often faulty.

The work of Hepplewhite was greatly influenced by two architects of the middle part of the eighteenth century. James Adam and his brother Robert probably never designed the furniture which is attributed to them, but to them was largely due the reaction that took place at this time, - a sudden great impetus toward simplicity and classic forms. The style was similar in many respects to that of Louis XVI. The straight line, the arabesque scrollwork, the gayety, lightness, and formality are common to both. The essence of the Adam style might be said to be simplicity, elegant slenderness, and low relief. The arm is an important ornament; the bell flower, delicate scrolls, drapery, the fluted shell, and medallion. Lions' and eagles' claws are used for feet.

The influence of the Adams on the furniture makers of their time was very marked. Sheraton did not imitate them, but he embodied in his furniture a true Adam feeling for simplicity. While Sheraton was the last of the trio of great master furniture makers of the eighteenth century, he certainly cannot be said to be least. In fact, some authorities maintain that while Chippendale and Hepplewhite were fine workmen, Sheraton was a poet. Sheraton carved, painted, and inlaid his furniture, using, and often improving upon, the ideas of his two great predecessors. He seldom used the shield back of Hepplewhite, and never the pierced splat back of Chippendale. While Chippendale avoided the straight line, Sheraton used it a great deal. His chairs are almost always distinguished by a straight top to the back, and rectangular legs. In his sideboards, tables, and desks where curved lines were used, he introduced the fluted column of Louis XVI. His furniture always seems thoroughly consistent in design, that final test of consummate art.

The last great epoch in furniture making arose in the early days of the nineteenth century. It was influenced by the French Revolution, and victory is stamped over all its furniture in the form of wreaths and torches or other warlike emblems. The Empire artists lauded the classics as never before, and Roman and Grecian decorations were used lavishly. Marquetry was discarded, but plain surfaces were covered with massive carving. In its plainer form the Empire type was dignified and full of beauty, having qualities of repose and stability which outranked some of its predecessors. It is to be regretted that, toward the last, the decorations came to be extravagant, even to the grotesque. The Empire style probably had more effect upon furniture making in America than any other. It came at a time when the industry on this side of the water was at its height, and consequently a large majority of the so-called colonial furniture is of this type.

After the Empire, there was no other distinctive style of any value produced during the remainder of the nineteenth century. There was a great quantity of furniture manufactured, but it was a sad combination of many old forms and little thought. The result was the large number of black walnut pieces, carved and decorated with countless turned "icicle" pendants and the stamped and inlaid light oak furniture. In the past few years two rather fantastic modes have come somewhat into favor, the British New Art and L'Art Nouveau. These can hardly be ranked as furniture styles, but rather as fads running parallel with the present craze for hand-beaten metal wear and jewelry. Mission furniture, too, has achieved a great popularity, and very suitably fills the need for a cheap but durable style.

Historians predict that, because of the unusual prosperity of our present time, there will soon come a great reaction from rapid money making toward art for art's sake. If their prophecy is correct, the twentieth century may still give us furniture makers whose work will rank with that of Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite.

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