Almost everyone in Western society uses many different pieces of furniture in their lives and as antiques that are both ubiquitous and valuable, the market for antique furniture is very large.
Many might assume that antique furniture has a primarily aesthetic appeal but the variety of pieces, their utility and their history make furniture more than decorative.
As much as architecture or any other antique, furniture has defined the periods of style widely recognised today. In many cases, furniture is synonymous with particular styles, such as a Chippendale chair with the mid-Georgian style or a gilt Pineau console table with Louis XV Rococo. This is reflected in the many revival styles that have occurred. In his Gentlemen and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, probably the first furniture catalogue, Chippendale’s iconic Georgian style appears alongside the equally popular Neo-Gothic and Oriental styles which sought to recreate fantasies of medieval Europe and far-away China and Japan. Similarly, the 19th century saw revivals of the more recent Rococo style, as well as ‘Antique’ furniture, inspired by a contemporary fascination with Ancient Egypt following the Napoleonic campaigns there, and with the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Furniture makers were very aware of the history of their own designs and were often very faithful to original styles when making revival furniture.
As well as their own history, furniture markers have also always worked within a distinctly local tradition, particularly in provincial furniture making. Country (‘vernacular’) furniture, such as a Windsor chair, often changed little in design over the generations and retained its local style in the face of changing fashion. In some pieces, such as dressers, the origins and even makers can be identified by stylistic traits alone. What might be referred to as a ‘welsh’ dresser might be a typical Montgomery piece or identifiable to Caernarfon.
Most people take their chairs, tables and other furniture for granted as catering to needs that we’ve always had: to eat, to rest and to store our possessions. This ignores, though, the enormous functional transformations our household furniture has gone through over the last 500 years as the humble oak stool and chest have given way to the modern sofa via the chaise-longue and the wardrobe via the linen-press. In the dining room, for example, changing dining habits saw first the replacement of great long, rectangular tables often taking up the majority of a hall or living space with tables that can be stowed away after use and smaller tables for more intimate dining. Breakfast tables first introduced the idea of different furniture for different meals before the introduction of tea in the 17th century created the fashion for tea tables and even ‘teapoys’ to store the tea.
Even more marked is the way in which living spaces have changed. The introduction first of upholstered ‘easy’ chairs in the late-17th century led a quest for comfort which culminated in the wing-armchairs of the 18th century and the heavily upholstered Victorian furniture of the 19th. The 19th century also heralded the widespread change in room arrangement that took furniture way from the walls and into the centre of rooms, this allowed for the birth of centre-pieces as well as sofas and sofa tables as we know them today. By this time drawing rooms also featured games tables, drum tables, nests of tables, occasional tables and side tables.
Changes in the use of furniture has driven great innovation in furniture making. Where medieval furniture is often too cumbersome and uncomfortable to be used faithfully in a modern setting, the introduction of upholstery and mechanisms for saving space and adding utility to pieces has made the way we use modern furniture change completely. Innovations such as the drawer which spread in Europe from medieval Spain (itself also influenced by Moor culture) and mechanisms for changing the size of tables (including gateleg, drop-leaf, ‘Jupe’s patent’, and telescopic tables to name a few) have revolutionised furniture design. The bureau is an example of a piece designed for purpose, that of writing and storage in one unit, but was just one part of an evolutionary chain from the Spanish vargueño (writing desk) to the bureau bookcase or the bureau à cylindre, furniture adapting to the needs of its market at every stage. To facilitate this kind of change, new methods of joinery, new materials and new methods of decoration were constantly discovered and rediscovered, making it easy to see why furniture continues to fascinate collectors today.