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History of furniture

Reconstruction of the prehistoric house with any certainty is impossible, although all indications are that it contained furniture. A history of furniture begins with a discussion of the oldest surviving examples: those from the 4th Dynasty (2575-2467 bc) to the 6th Dynasty (2323-2152 bc) of Old Kingdom Egypt.

 Egyptian Furniture

The dry Egyptian climate and elaborate burial procedures are in part responsible for the survival of pieces, which include stools, tables, chairs, and couches. In addition, wall paintings give insight into the design of Egyptian furniture. With respect to both design and construction, the methods used in ancient Egypt are followed wherever furniture is made today. For large pieces, particularly seating and tables, the mortise-and-tenon construction familiar in ancient Egypt is still in use, although the tenon may be replaced by a dowel to expedite production. The sides of more delicate boxes and chests were joined by dovetailing, a technique that persists in contemporary work. One ancient Egyptian stool illustrated on a wooden panel (2800? bc, Egyptian Museum, Cairo) from the tomb of Hesire has animal legs as the supports. It does not differ much from a chair (1325? bc, Egyptian Museum) from the tomb of the New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamen.

A chair, table, couch, and canopy (2550? bc, Egyptian Museum) from the tomb of the 4th Dynasty queen Hetepheres at Giza were reconstructed from remnants of their original gold sheathing. They have animal legs, a solid chair back, and arm supports of openwork panels in papyrus patterns. The bed, higher at the head, has a headrest and a footboard. The relief decoration on some of the furniture consists of symbols of gods and scenes of religious significance. Other surviving tables and stools are restrained in design, with legs that are beautifully made but plain. It is conceivable that the pieces were originally ornamented with stamped metal sheathing, but wall paintings also illustrate simple upholstered pieces.

Extant examples and illustrations from wall paintings suggest the broad scope of decoration used on furniture. Gold sheets were applied to legs of chairs and tables; inlays of ivory and other materials were employed on panels of chests and other surfaces. The motifs of forms with legs as anthropomorphic and of storage pieces as buildings in miniature were popular in ancient Egypt and in succeeding cultures.

Mesopotamian Furniture

Although virtually no examples have survived, inlays and reliefs provide an idea of what furniture from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley looked like. Tables, stools, and thrones are illustrated in works from about 3500 to 800 bc. A Sumerian standard—a box on a pole (3500?-3200? BC, Iraq Museum, Baghdād)—has shell inlays that illustrate very simple chairs and thrones. Also surviving is a Sumerian harp (2685? bc, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia) that has rich, colorful inlays and a bearded bull’s head carved in the round and covered in gold foil. A stele, or carved stone slab, made about 2300 bc shows a backless throne that appears to have been elegantly upholstered but had very plain straight legs. The furniture shown in a relief (9th century bc, British Museum, London) of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II and his queen is more elaborate, with tables and thrones supported on trumpet-shaped and animal-form legs and embellished with relief decoration.

Minoan and Mycenaean Furniture

Examples of furniture in the Bronze Age cultures at Mycenae on mainland Greece and in the Aegean Islands are equally difficult to find. Relief representations on Minoan rings and small bronze and terra-cotta representations provide most of the evidence. One splendid exception, the gypsum throne in the Throne Room at Knossos (1600?-1400? BC), suggests that function and materials were more important than design in the Aegean Islands, because the basic designs are less stylized on both the throne and the small terra-cotta pieces. The extant examples—stools, chairs, couches, benches, and chests—do not suggest the use of much elaborate decoration. One or two tablets have been discovered, however, that make reference to inlays and gold embellishments on furniture. A single extant ivory leg from Thebes is also elaborately ornamented.

Greek Furniture

Greek furniture, like Mesopotamian, is best known from paintings and sculpture, as few specimens have survived intact. Details on vase paintings and grave stelae (tombstones) tell a good part of the story, but the frieze from the Parthenon and a group of miniature seated figures in terra-cotta and in bronze help fill in the gaps. A few marble thrones have survived, as have isolated wooden elements from actual Greek pieces. The available evidence suggests that Greek designers did not follow the free forms of the earlier Aegean examples; their tendency to base furniture ornament on architectural decoration, and the general symmetry and regularity of overall design, appear instead to follow Egyptian precedent. Nevertheless, although they resemble each other, the Greek couch and the Egyptian bed, for example, serve markedly distinct purposes. Used for eating as well as resting, the Greek couch was made with the horizontal reclining area at table height, rather than low and at an incline. The headrest was often curved to support pillows and no foot rest was used. Although the animal-form leg is seen occasionally, legs more often were a trumpet form or a rectangular design based on a columnar form. Stools were made in a variety of configurations. Folding stools with X-shaped legs and stationary stools with straight legs were made at least from the 6th century bc to the Hellenistic age (323-31 bc).

Both functional and plain examples as well as more elaborate models were created. A distinctive innovation of Greek designers is the chair known as a klismos, a light (or easy) chair with a back. Comfortable and very popular, it was used most in the Archaic and Classical periods (7th century to 4th century bc). The klismos is essentially plain, with legs curving out from the seat and a back support consisting of a simple rectangular panel curved inward from sides to center. Tables pictured in paintings are generally small. Rectangular tops appear to have been the more popular type, with support that consisted most often of three legs—mostly simple and curved but sometimes carved in animal forms—that were at times reinforced with stretchers near the top. Literary references and illustrations suggest that typical tables were light. They were moved in to serve individuals at a dinner and removed after the meal to allow space for entertainers to perform. Round tables of Greek origin were made in the Hellenistic period.

Chests in ancient Greece varied in size from those built on a miniature scale to monumental examples and in design from those with plain flat tops to the more architectural style with gabled lids. They were made variously of wood, bronze, and ivory, with architectural decoration. The traditional configuration of chests is a long-lived phenomenon; it is first found in ancient Egypt and remains evident in 19th-century folk examples.

Roman Furniture

At first glance, Roman furniture design appears to have been based on Greek prototypes. In the first century AD opulent Roman design reflected strong Greek influence. The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide clear evidence of handsome domestic architecture and show the settings that required furniture. Pompeiian frescoes illustrate the use of furniture and suggest that a wider variety of forms was known. The source and date of new storage pieces that had been introduced in Hellenistic Greece are questionable. No secure evidence confirms the theory that cupboards were introduced during this period. Examples of cupboards on Roman frescoes may be copies of Greek paintings, but a cupboard from the house of the Lararium in Herculaneum has survived.

Extant examples indicate that the Romans made more marble and bronze furniture than Greeks did; also, the Roman designs were more complex, even though they employed the same basic vocabulary of ornament. In addition to the small tables common in Greece, larger, rectangular tables and round tables of various sizes were used. More practical designs were also introduced: There were tables that could be taken apart and others with folding bases. The richness of elegant inlays and elaborate work in ivory, bronze, marble, and wood are mentioned in Roman literature, and enough fragments exist to corroborate the early descriptions

Byzantine and Early Medieval Furniture

Although other surviving artifacts are abundant, there is strangely little evidence of furniture from Early Christian (3rd century to 7th century ad) and Byzantine (5th century to 15th century) periods, either in the East or the West. Byzantine art has been much admired. The richness of imperial churches in İstanbul, Turkey, and in Ravenna, Italy, indicates that there must have been a parallel magnificence in the furnishings of the palatial homes of ruling families. Byzantine mosaics suggest that, although classical ornament may have become stylized, it was still used between about ad 400 and 1000. A single Byzantine monument, the Throne of Bishop Maximian (550?, Archiepiscopal Museum, Ravenna), a masterpiece of ivory relief sculpture completely covering a wooden frame, was designed for ecclesiastical use. The throne nevertheless reveals the rich, stylized ornament of the period, and it suggests the manner in which secular Byzantine furniture design must have been conceived

The so-called Throne of Dagobert I (600?, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), a bronze folding stool, has animal legs familiar from Roman examples but rendered far more boldly. Manuscripts and an occasional mosaic from the 5th century to the 9th century provide further evidence that, although Roman influence persisted, changes in taste inspired artisans to render detail more abstractly and simply. Flat patterns replaced the high relief of Roman times. Stylistic conservatism, pronounced in the illuminated manuscripts of the period, was also evident in its furniture.

The 11th and 12th centuries—the Romanesque period—are known for the regeneration of spirituality and for the large number of new churches built in western Europe, but little evidence exists of the furniture of the period. Romanesque furniture design is best known from the assortment of 12th-century representations in French sculpture, in which simplified, schematic interpretations of Greco-Roman ornament are used. A few surviving turned-post (lathe-turned) chairs from 12th-century Scandinavia are Romanesque in spirit. Wooden chests, made somewhat later, are carved in schematic, geometric patterns that continue the Romanesque style

Gothic Furniture

Gothic architecture involved the use of pointed arches, flying buttresses, and other dramatic innovations to create spectacular spatial effects, but 12th-century furniture design was not influenced by the novel style. The new cathedrals were expressions of affluence, but for their interiors the rich patrons of the church appear to have favored simple, functional oak furniture enriched with tapestries and metalwork. The decorative elements of the Gothic, particularly the pointed arch, were not employed in furniture ornament until about 1400. Then, for more than a century, tracery and arches were carved on the panels of chairs, on chests, and on tables of every size.

In the 15th century a few new forms were introduced. One was a type of sideboard with a small storage area set on tall legs; it had display space on the top of the enclosure as well as on a shelf below it. Cupboards were made with either one or two tiers of storage areas enclosed with doors. Another important storage piece was the armoire, with tall doors enclosing an area of 1.5 m to 2 m (4 ft to 6 ft). Along with such architectural motifs as arches, columns, and foliate patterns appeared decorative carving based on hanging textiles, a motif known as linenfold. As a primarily northern European style, Gothic remained influential in furniture design into the early 16th century
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