Furniture
A highly important George II carved mahogany open arm chair
A highly important George II carved mahogany open arm chair
george-ii-carved-mahogany-open-arm-chair

Furniture is one of the largest and most varied collecting categories. It is also one of the most widely practiced, in the sense that items of furniture are necessary for most living spaces. Anyone who has ever chosen furniture for their home could be considered a collector.

Furniture collectors are often interested in a particular era or style of furniture design, or one specific designer or manufacturer.

Some may possess a collection that consists entirely of chairs, while others may focus on desks or dressers.

Some items of furniture are utilitarian, designed to support daily activities, while some are created for ornamental purposes, as pieces of decorative art.

A great tradition of restoring antique & vintage furniture has arisen in recent decades, as a passion for old styles has resurfaced.

History

Some of the earliest known furniture comes from Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands in Scotland and has been dated back to 2,000 BC.

During the Stone Age, farmers lived in stone huts and made stone furniture such as cupboards and beds for their living areas.

During the Middle Ages, many homes contained a "heal" room which acted as a dining room, living room and bedroom. These rooms usually contained a long table surrounded by stools and benches.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, many items of furniture such as chairs and chests were decorated with carvings. The Gothic style of architecture became popular and features such as Gothic arches and Gothic carving became commonplace in furniture design.

Between the eleventh and fifteenth century the Gothic style remained prominent.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, furniture carvings became more complicated and began to feature animals and other figures combined with Gothic details. It was at this time that cupboards first appeared, and were usually highly decorated.

During the Renaissance period, designs were made with reference to their setting. Upholstered chairs were created, as well as cabinets and chests of drawers, many of which featured intricate carvings. Many homes began to include items such as clocks, mirrors and screens and to hang tapestries on the walls.

The 17th century saw the progress of many new decorative techniques, including veneering (layering pieces of wood on top of one another), inlaying (wood was carved out and the hollow was filled with another material, such as mother of pearl) and lacquering. Grandfather clocks and book cases became popular during the late 17th century.

During the 18th wealthy people owned comfortable, upholstered furniture. Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite were notable furniture designers of this period.

The 19th century saw the first mass productions of items of furniture, making it cheaper and thus available to more people. In stark contrast, the Arts and Crafts movement which flourished between 1860 and 1910 was incredibly influential in promoting the virtues of traditional craftsmanship, folk decoration,and the unique and hand-made.

During the 20th century, rising living standards meant that many people furnished all rooms instead of just one. During this time, affordable furniture was greatly improved in terms of quality and design.

The 1920s and the 1920s saw the introduction of Art Deco design which used geometric shapes instead of the flowing lines of Art Nouveau. Designs originating in the schools of Bauhaus and Mid-century Modern have experienced a great revival in recent years.

Types of furniture

Chairs
Chairs became standard items of furniture in the 16th century. Prior to this, benches and stools were used as seats by the majority, and chairs were reserved as symbols of status and emblems of authority. The most valuable examples are often those owned by royalty, and made by craftsmen.

There are many designs, manufacturers and styles of chair that are particularly collectible. For example, many people choose to focus on the development of one type of chair through history, such as antique and vintage rocking chairs or the designs of one craftsman, such as Charles and Ray Eames.

20th century chairs that represent pioneering, artistic and innovative design have a growing number of devotees.

Read more about collecting chairs, or see our list of types of chair.


Tables
While numerous designers and movements have been inspired to experiment with the form and use of the chair, the humble table had historically been overlooked.

The main innovations in table design were the creation of the console table in the 1600s, the tilt-top table and drop leaf table, extending dining tables, work surfaces such as drafting tables, and quite significantly, the coffee table.

The coffee table caused a design revolution. The table became the focal point of the room, rather than a simply functional object. It was taken up by the designers of the Art Deco and Mid-century Modern, and the result was visually arresting pieces of decorative art.

Read more about collecting tables or see our list of types of table for information on several collectible types.


Desks
Tables evolved into desks, work surfaces with storage, probably towards the end of the medieval period, for reading, writing, and copying manuscripts prior to the invention of the printing press.

There is a long-standing belief amongst many artists and writers that one must possess the right desk, the perfect desk, whether an antique bureau, a roll tops or a large oak monolith, in order to gain inspiration and produce good work.

This idea of ‘the desk as muse’ may be a contributing factor to the collectors’ interest in desks. Their functionality remains significant, as well as great importance being attached to their aesthetics and harmony with the rest of the room.


Sofas
Sofas, also known as couches and settees, arose in the 17th century, stuffed with horse hair and feathers. While these were formed as a ‘loveseat’, for two people, they were not specifically for romantic purposes, but so that women in ample gowns could sit comfortable amidst great hoops and folds of material. Chaise-lounges served a similar purpose for a single person, though sometimes these were used for amorous purposes, quite neatly accommodating a women, her dress, and a man.

Springs were introduced to the designs around the late 1820s, and upholstery and padding were added. They increased in size so that three people could fit onto them, and thus the modern sofa was born.

There are many different styles and materials of sofa available. Antique examples are popular with collectors, and vintage examples becoming more so.


Dressers
Dressers, chests of draws or vanity tables, often called ‘lowboys’ and ‘tallboys’ in America, became popular in the 18th century. They have been subject to much variation in design over the years.

Tall dressers were precursors to wardrobes. Some stood incredibly high, and needed steps to reach them. Small dressers were favourites of the Queen Anne, early Georgian and Chippendale styles, which produced ornate and elegant antique designs, often with a mirror above.

Later designs introduced more modernist simplicity.


Mirrors
Mirrors have been used since ancient times. For the individual, they are useful in presenting their likeness, and in the context of a room, they can act as decorative objects as well as reflecting light.

Mirrors are inspiring and fascinating. They provoke numerous artistic metaphors relating to reflection and the world within the glass.

The way they reflect light makes them ideal additions to a room, and the fact that they are often set into frames makes them an ideal subject for design.


Other

Significant periods of furniture design

Le Corbusier Bauhaus table
Le Corbusier Bauhaus table
le-corbusier-bauhaus-table
  • Art Deco furniture – characterised by bold geometric forms, often using materials like chrome and glass. Well known designers include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Sue and Mare, and Wiener Werkstatte.

  • Art Nouveau furniture – a departure from Victorian styles to incorporate smooth curving lines and transitions, often floral and foliate, created using new materials such as cast iron. Well known designers include Carlo Bugatti, Eugene Gaillard and Louis Majorelle.

  • Arts and Crafts furniture – was part of the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished between 1860 and 1910. Typical of the movement, its furniture returned to a handcrafted and folk aesthetic that opposed mass production and industrialisation.

  • Baroque furniture – heavily influenced Western Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries. Characterised by large twisted columns, broken pediments, and heavy mouldings, it represents grandeur, elegance and power. Glass doored cabinets and mirrors are often found in this style, and each piece is designed to be the main focus of a room.

  • Bauhaus furniture – the German Bauhaus movement was vastly influential to art, design, architecture and lifestyle. It was close to Art Deco, based on the principles of English designer William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Bauhaus believed that mass production could be utilised to create something both functional and aesthetic. The design of Bauhaus furniture deliberately reflects industrial production, incorporating materials like steel. The house is a machine for living, and the chair is a machine for sitting in. Notable designers include Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer. Read more about collecting Bauhaus furniture.

  • Chippendale – the style of Chippendale furniture was named after English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale – the first style to be named after a furniture designer rather than a monarch. It became the most famous name in the history of English furniture. Chippendale designs bridge the Gothic, Rococo and Chinese styles. After Thomas Chippendale’s death, others took up his mantle and crafted furniture based on his book of furniture designs, called The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.
Louis XV Style Rococo bed
Louis XV Style Rococo bed
louis-xv-style-rococo-bed
  • Colonial furniture – styles as those used in colonies between the 16th and 19th centuries, characterised by a strong mother country influence, coupled with local materials and craftsmanship. There was a great Colonial revival movement in American during the late 19th century.

  • Danish Modern furniture – was crafted in Denmark during the post-war period, during the rise of the Mid-Century Modern style. It is defined by clean lines and simple, elegant forms. The style was vastly influential, its pioneers including Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner and Borge Mogensen. It is extremely popular with collectors and as an interior design theme.

  • Depression-era furniture – made during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, during the Great Depression. Due to cutbacks, this furniture experienced a lessening of ornamentation, and the materials used were cheaper than those before. It commonly employed veneer work, laying an attractive finish over low quality wood. Depression-era furniture was unpopular for many years, but now has a burgeoning collecting community.

  • Early American furniture – flourished between 1608 and 1720 among the new colonists, particularly in Virginia and New England. Consists of simple, often wooden pieces with little design detail. It often imitated English styles popular a decade or two earlier. Chests are particularly notable in this style, important to colonists because of their portability. Other trademark items include court cupboards, easily dismantled trestle tables, joint stools, and Brewster and Carver chairs.

  • Federal furniture – America’s reaction to late 18th century Neo-classical movement, produced between 1789 and 1823. Characterised by sharp geometric forms, straight legs, contrasting veneers, and federal motifs such as the eagle. Notable designers include Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honore Lannuier.

  • French-style furniture – emulates the flamboyant and lavish excess of the 17th and 18th century French Monarchy. Typical features include cabriole legs, often in the form of animals, numerous embellishments such as scrolls and intricate scenes, and materials include brass inlaid into ebony or tortoiseshell. This style experienced a revival in the post-monarchy 19th century era, as the aristocratic items filtered down to the rising middle class. This led to mass production of imitation aristocratic items.

  • Gothic furniture – arose in the 12th century and remained popular until the 16th. Derived from Roman architecture, typically featured highly decorative panels and used indigenous woods. Imagery such as gargoyles, rosettes, animals, misshapen figures and flowers. Often large and heavy, with fabrics such as leather, velvet or brocade, and darker wood or dark stain finish. Prominent Gothic furniture designers during the 19th century Gothic revival period include Alexander Jackson Davis, Thomas Chippendale and Augustus Pugin.

  • Queen Anne furniture – a style that developed during the reign of Queen Anne, 1702-1714. It is petite and comfortable, common elements including curving shapes, cushioned seats, wing-back chairs, and most notably the cabriole leg. It is also often described as ‘late Baroque’.

  • Renaissance furniture – Early Renaissance furniture marked the transition between Gothic arts and classical revival. It typically features classical proportions, rectilinear lines, arches, ornaments and detail, high relief carving and architectural pilasters. This was followed by High Renaissance furniture, characterised by highly refined proportions, deep carving, and Roman-esque detailing like arabesques and festoons. Late Renaissance furniture expanded on this to include overly elaborate and somewhat pretentious detailing, and maintained the level of deep carving.

  • Retro furniture – a contemporary retrospective view, reinterpreting vintage styles from the 1930s to 1980s in a playful, sometimes ironic manner. Often exaggerates aspects of the original style for effect.

  • Rococo furniture – A French-influenced style which dominated the first half of the 18th century, using lighter woods than baroque, with delicate detail. The designs took pleasure in asymmetry, and was whimsical, lighthearted and versatile. Items included the fauteuil chair, the voyeause chair, and the berger en gondola.

  • Shaker furniture – developed by the religious sect, United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. It is simplistic with innovative joinery, good quality, and highly functional. The designs reflect the ascetic beliefs of the Society.

  • Victorian furniture – comprises pieces made during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837 – 1901. It can encompass hand crafted designs, as well as mass produced items. Victorian furniture encompasses many different styles already discussed, including Gothic Revival, Rococo, Renaissance Revival, and Eastlake.

Popular designers & manufacturers

An iconic Eames lounge chair and ottoman
An iconic Eames lounge chair and ottoman
eames-lounge-chair-and-ottoman

There are certain furniture designers that collectors flock to, whose pioneering inventions epitomise the revolutionary stages in furniture design throughout history. These pieces are invariably the most sought after by collectors, the most valuable, and often considered closer to pieces of art than functional items.

Thomas Chippendale, the 18th century cabinetmaker, was the first craftsman to have an entire style of furniture named after him, whereas styles had previously always been named after a monarch. He also wrote the very first book of furniture designs, that others after his death worked from. Chippendale is possibly the most famous name in the history of English furniture.

The turn of the century furniture designs of Gustav Stickley, a premier figure of the American Arts and Crafts movement, are widely collected. His pieces are evocative of handcrafted skill in the pre-industrial era, and have experienced a resurgence of interest since the 1980s.

American designers Charles and Ray Eames were pioneers of modern chair design in the 1940s and 1950s. Their curved plywood pieces are iconic 20th century designs, produced on a mass scale.

See our list of notable furniture designers for more information.

As the world moved into the age of mass production, often furniture would be produced by manufacturers rather than individual craftsmen. This does not diminish collectors’ interest in items of furniture, as iconic designs from the turn of the century up until the 1980s are increasingly becoming collectors’ items. Mass produced American furniture from the early 20th century, particularly Depression-Era items, are still found in homes and antique stores across the US. While in the past they have been considered far inferior in relation to antique furniture, there is a rising interest in and appreciation for this type of design.

Often designers would be in the employ of a manufacturing company. Even some of the famous designers would have constructed the prototypes for mass produced items stamped only with a manufacturer’s mark, such as Danish designer Ib Kofod-Larsen’s designs for the British company E. Gomme’s G-plan furniture.

See our list of American furniture manufacturers for more information.

Guide to Collecting

How to identify a piece of furniture
The simplest way to identify an item of furniture is to find a maker’s mark, or manufacturer’s stamp or emboss. If present, this will inform you who made your item. It is common for maker’s marks to change over the years, and as such the mark can indicate the date at which it was produced.

If your piece of furniture does not have an identification mark, it may be that it is a rare handmade item by an obscure craftsman, or it may be that it is one of millions churned out cheaply, not worthy of being identified. You must assess this from the condition and quality of the piece.

If you can identify the style of furniture, for example Art Deco and Art Nouveau are quite recognisable, it may be possible to narrow it down to one of the well known designers in that discipline.

It may be worth consulting an expert, and reading one or more of the numerous book guides to collecting furniture.

How to value a piece of furniture
The value of an item of furniture is entirely dependent on its origin, style, history, manufacturer, materials, condition and provenance. The first step is to identify your piece of furniture as far as possible, ideally to find out who made it and at what date, its history of ownership, and assess what condition it is in. This should allow comparison with similar items sold in the past, from which you can get an idea of what yours is worth.

Where to find furniture
Furniture, unlike many other areas of collecting in the age of the internet, has had to remain quite localised due to the size and weight of items making them difficult and expensive to transport. As such, you are most likely to find items at auction, in second hand and furniture stores, reclamation yards, and house clearance.

Restoration
While in many areas, restoration of an item is not recommended, it is quite common with antique & vintage furniture and can sometimes improve its value rather than having a negative effect.

Reproductions
The furniture market is saturated with reproductions. The nature of furniture design, as evidenced by the number of 'revival' periods in history, often imitates earlier motifs and appropriates designs of the past. It is in the nature of furniture to be reproduced.

As an individual choosing furniture for a house, becoming interested in a particular style, this is fantastic. Chairs in the style of almost all designs and eras can be found across the world, generally for a relatively cheap price.

For the serious collector, however, only a genuine original will do.

Whether this means a unique piece hand-crafted by Thomas Chippendale himself, or the first batch of Wassily chairs ever mass-produced by the Bauhaus school, original and iconic designs are incredibly expensive and increasingly rare.

The true value of furniture, therefore, lies in original pieces.

Did you know?

The most expensive piece of furniture ever sold is an 18th century Badminton Cabinet commissioned by Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort.

The piece has twice broken the record for the most expensive piece of furniture. In July 1990, the Badminton Cabinet was sold by Christie’s for $15 million.

In 2004, the piece returned to Christie’s and this time sold for £18,045,250.

Other notable furniture at auction

  • A Chippendale carved mahogany easy chair was sold by Christie’s in January 2005 for $1,584,000.
  • A Louis XVI Ormolu-mounted ebony bureau plat was sold by Sotheby’s in New York for $4,720,000 in November 2005.
  • In October 2009, an imperial carved Zitan ‘Dragon’ throne was sold at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong. It sold for HK$85,780,000.

Useful links

  • Antiques & Collectibles National Association - A U.S organization which offers insurance and advice to both professional dealers & private collectors
  • Antique Collector's Club - A publisher specializing in a wide range of titles on antiques, furniture and decorative arts
  • Picollecta - An online pinboard with an extensive section on vintage & antique furniture
  • Modern Shows - A U.K company which organizes numerous shows offering Mid-century & Modern furniture
  • 1stdibs - An international dealer of antique & vintage furniture, design and more
  • Viebahn Fine Arts - An International dealer in antique furniture, especially German and Northern European furniture

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