Furniture design has always been an important part of architecture. It is defined as the movable items inside space and each one of them plays a specific role in people’s ordinary activities. This role can be to sit, eat, store clothes, decorate, light the room, etc. Thus, chairs, tables, closets, and lampshades are all examples of what we call furniture, and it is hard to imagine humans’ daily lives without it. Its first appearance dates back to the Neolithic period, as evidence suggests. 

Although people started to use natural elements as furniture thousands of years ago, less primitive forms of furniture design started to emerge some years later in the first civilizations. Furniture has changed a lot throughout the years until becoming what we know today. Knowing its path is important to design furniture suitable for our society nowadays and understand the needs that can emerge in the future.

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Furniture Design_©windowsreport.com

The History of Furniture Design

Furniture of Ancient Egypt is one of the first examples of furniture design in history. Unlike in some other further periods, furniture was an exclusive luxury saved for the rich in Egypt, and being a symbol of power was its main purpose. Most pieces were made from wood, ivory, and gold, and they were characterized by their square shapes. Egyptian furniture aesthetics also influenced the furniture of Ancient Greece

In Greek design, chairs, tables, and couches were the most important elements. The couch was often used for sitting during the day and for sleeping at night, and it was called Kline. As most houses had only one large room, Greek furniture should be simple and versatile.

Approximately from the 5th century, medieval furniture also left a mark in history. Its ornate wood carvings and the absence of curved lines or circular forms make the design of this time easily recognizable. English oak was the predominant material used. Later, the Renaissance spread through Europe, and it was heavily influenced by the classical period. It was a time of significant artistic and scientific realizations, in which many great artists emerged. Due to the wealth trade brought to Italy, people were able to afford better and bigger housing, which resulted in an increase in the demand for high-quality furniture. 

Italian design was typically rectangular with carved bases, and the ornamentation reflected architectural elements and mythological and historical figures. It quickly spread to other countries, but it started to change as people tried to adapt it to better suit the local taste.

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Medieval Furniture_©Marketplace

Afterwards, a gradual change to a less ornamented style led to the development of Jacobean furniture. Pieces were lower and more rectangular, and table legs were straighter. Then, Colonial furniture emerged. It referred to the furniture produced during the early Colonial period. After immigrants brought furniture from Europe to America, people started to produce it locally in the same style. However, different environmental conditions and cultures led to several adaptations in pieces. 

During the 18th and 19th centuries, two other well-known styles arose: the exuberant new Rococo style, with its dense ornamentation and pastel colours, and Art Nouveau, famous for its lines and curves. 

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Rococo Furniture_©Pinterest

The furniture of the 20th century had a diversity of styles. The first outstanding one was Bauhaus, arising from The Bauhaus School, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. This style was known for its functional and streamlined design. It prioritized function, rejecting unnecessary stylistic affections. In the ’20s, the famous Art Deco emerged in Paris. Unlike Bauhaus, Art Deco celebrated luxury and sophistication. Furniture from this period was known for its symmetrical and curved shapes. 

After, mid-century Modern furniture design took place. This style was focused on functionality and simplicity, and was highly influenced by the post-war context. As cities and houses needed to be rebuilt after destruction, furniture was mass-produced in order to be fast and affordable. Mid-century modern furniture also reinforced newness, originality, and technical innovation. 

Finally, the contemporary style arose in the ’80s and stayed until now. It marked a very diverse era in which trends play a big role.

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Modern Furniture_©Mar-Den

Furniture Design Today

Furniture design in the last years has been closely related to the advent of technology. Knowledge and easy access to information enabled pieces to become more practical and useful. Population growth made residences smaller throughout the years. In big cities, rooms are often cramped, so furniture needs to be optimized. Sometimes it means that a bed will also be a sofa, or that the dining table will be used as an office desk. 

On the Internet, it is easy to see publicity about furniture that promises unconventional possibilities, having more than a single purpose, being controlled by technological devices, or becoming foldable. 

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Compact Furniture_©topdreamer.com

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic made an impact on architecture and furniture design that will probably last for many years. The main changes are in the home environment. When lockdown forced people to stay home, many adaptations had to be made, especially considering the need to work from home. As a result, office furnishing was largely bought. Comfort and convenience were the characteristics people desired the most. 

Most workers did not have a space at home specifically destined for work activities, so furniture had to adapt. A great example is L20 Sofa by JaK Studio, a sofa that is also a working pod. Now more than ever, people need furniture that is versatile. 

L20 Sofa_©wallpaper.com

What to Expect

The new work-from-home revolution will definitely continue to shape what furniture will be like in the future. It is a major cultural change that is spreading worldwide. Furniture will continue to be focused on the home environment, and as businesses struggle to come back to office buildings, they will need to become more cosy and welcoming to convince workers to leave their houses. This need will certainly shape office furniture from now on. Considering that many people will continue to spend most of their time at home, furniture will likely become more and more ergonomic and practical. 

Sustainability is also a growing concern, so pieces made from recycled materials have the potential to thrive in the next few years. A look at the history of furniture shows that it is not only about aesthetics; it is about the needs of society at each time. Therefore, this is what designers need to be focused on.

References

Padraig Cahill (2016). Furniture Design History. [online] Onlinedesignteacher.com. Available at: https://www.onlinedesignteacher.com/2016/02/furniture-design-history.html. [Accessed 2 Sep. 2021].

Angie’s List (2018). See How the Design of Chairs, Beds and Sofas Have Evolved Through History. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/901164/see-how-the-design-of-chairs-beds-and-sofas-have-evolved-through-history. [Accessed 2 Sep. 2021].

Morley, M. (2016). A Brief History of Mid-Century Modern Furniture Design. [online] AnOther. Available at: https://www.anothermag.com/design-living/8678/a-brief-history-of-mid-century-modern-furniture-design. [Accessed 2 Sep. 2021].

Study.com. (2019). History of Furniture Design: Timeline & Evolution | Study.com. [online] Available at: https://study.com/academy/lesson/history-of-furniture-design-timeline-evolution.html. [Accessed 2 Sep. 2021].

Valeris, M. (2019). Top Designers Reveal the Biggest Furniture Trends to Expect in 2020. [online] ELLE Decor. Available at: https://www.elledecor.com/design-decorate/trends/g29955714/furniture-trends-2020/.  [Accessed 2 Sep. 2021].

Magazine, W. (2020). Design for social distancing: innovative solutions for post/pandemic life. [online] Wallpaper*. Available at: https://www.wallpaper.com/design/social-distancing-furniture-innovative-pandemic-design. [Accessed 2 Sep. 2021].

BoConcept. (2021). THREE DESIGNERS ON CORONA VS. FURNITURE DESIGN. [online] Available at: https://www.boconcept.com/en-gb/aboutboconcept/press-lounge/facts/3-designers-on-corona [Accessed 3 Sep. 2021].

Author

Roberta Inglês is an architecture and urbanism student at University of Brasilia, Brazil. She is passionate about urban planning and architectural history, and loves to observe how buildings and cities can influence human behavior. She believes writing is a very effective way to develop critical thinking.

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