The evolution or origins of furniture can be traced to the pre-historic or Neolithic era when all that it meant was simply stone benches to tables made of rocks.
Humans were nomads then, dependent on hunting and gathering and therefore lived in temporary settlements. Use of furniture was limited to benches and chairs for seating and beds for sleeping. Materials commonly used were tree stumps, stones, rocks etc as is evident from the excavations.
Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt –First evidence of Wood used in Furniture
The earliest evidence of furniture and other household items made of wood dates back to the ancient Egyptian period when furniture mainly consisted of beds, chairs, boxes and chests for storage. This is because the super arid climate of Egypt helped preserve organic materials. Economic activity of people was mainly farming around the river Nile and animal husbandry. Gradually people learnt about irrigation and trade& commerce developed. With farming and clearing land, people gradually discovered the usage of wood in creating furniture. Trade and commerce developed gradually and wood came to be imported into Egypt. Wood was easy to work with, easy to polish and craftsmen could easily showcase their flare in creating decorative furniture. Furniture during this period was simple with a wooden plank supported with four pillars. Folding wooden bed with bronze hinges was also common during that time for ease of transportation and storage.
Greece and Roman Period – Access to specialty wood became easier
A major difference that marks Greek and Egyptian civilization is culture. While early Egyptians relied primarily on agriculture, Greeks and Romans depended on trade. With the expansion of trade routes access to specialty wood like Maple, Oak, Beech, Willow, Yew became easier. Woods were imported from faraway lands. Wooden furniture during this period show a high degree of engineering and craftsmanship. Carving and decoration with Ivory, Tortoise shells, glass and gold were common. Fine wooden furniture became a status symbol and therefore wood became symbolic of luxury, wealth and power.
Medieval Europe and Renaissance
With the fall of the Roman Empire fine craftsmanship was also lost and it was during this time that furniture began to take on modern characteristics. Medieval Europe was a period of unrest and therefore evidence of furniture is scarce save for bulky chairs and tables made of Oak wood for royal halls. Wood was scarce in northern Europe and this is evident in the sparse furnishing in the medieval castles.
Renaissance – New wealth came in from East Asia and Art became popular. Furniture was no exception. Ancient Greek manuscripts were rediscovered and therefore furniture during this period had influences of the classical world and elements of old civilization. Fine craftsmanship returned. Furniture styles during this period exhibit strong architectural sense and a symbol of wealth and power. Four-poster or canopy beds as we know it today first became popular during this time. Large, elaborate chairs and wooden chests for storage were some of the other popular pieces of furniture during this period. Carvings mostly represented elements of the classical world or mythological and religious themes like columns, strapwork, foliage, cupids, stylized leaves and flowers which are an Islamic form of decoration.
Colonial Era – Blend of the east and the west
This period marked the colonization of America and had designs with borrowed designs from the British and adopted to meet the needs of Americans. In the early days when people were just settling in, furniture was designed to be lighter. Furniture during this period featured ornamental carvings, raised panels and woodturnings. Common material included Maple, Birch, Cherry, Walnut and Oak. These were based on designs that were popular in England.
Industrial Revolution – Mass production of furniture
This period marked a shift in the workers from using hand tools to machines. Designs during this period were simple, practical and not stylish. The industrial revolution also saw other materials like glass, aluminium, wrought iron, plastic being used in the production of furniture. This period also saw a furniture designs which combined wood with other materials. However, wood remained a staple in furniture manufacturing.
Modern Era – From ornamental to functional
This represents period from late 19th century through to the present times. Heavy carvings and rich design patterns gave way to simplicity and minimalism. The post World War ii ideals which emphasized on optimum utilization of time, money, labour and material is evident in the aesthetics. Furniture was no more an ornament as in the past. Modern designs sought to blend design with functionality i.e how the features such as shape, size would conform to the human posture.
Wrapping it up
From stone benches in pre-historic times, ornamental furniture with exquisite carvings that were a hallmark of the rich to simple, minimalistic and affordable furniture that has made its way in to every household, furniture has indeed come a long way. Furniture today combines practicality and design elements that strive to be attainable as well as affordable.