Defining furniture styles from antique to modern contemporary

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They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is certainly true in the furnishing world.

There are as many styles in the world of furniture and design as there are tastes to desire them. From the somber dark woods of the Jacobean period to the geometric characteristics of Art Deco, there is something for everyone, and often making a choice is the hardest part.

Let’s run through some of the more well-known styles, defining and categorizing them so that with a little understanding, we can better analyze our tastes and desires. From rustic to formal, simple to elaborate, furniture creates a mood and shows off personal taste to best effect.

17th Century Furniture: Furniture has come a long way from the heavy 17th century Jacobean influences. This mediaeval-style furniture was typically plain wood with rush seats, straight lines and characteristically dark wood. In later years Early American style evolved, with typical European influence brought by the immigrants to the New World of America. In contrast, Louis XIV was busy creating the splendours and opulence of Versailles, with ornate gold carvings, fine artwork and magnificent craftsmanship in every room.

The later William and Mary style brought trumpet turned legs, ball feet and padded upholstery to English parlours with a new look in oriental lacquer work.

18th Century Furniture: As Queen Anne ascended the English throne in 1702, furnishings became more refined, with graceful cabriole legs, rococo ornate trimmings and shell curves. Tapestry and chintz were popular and this became known as Queen Anne style.

Colonial style American furniture was more conservative than English furniture of the same period, featuring carved pillars and less ornamentation. Following Queen Anne, Georgian style appeared and was particularly identifiable in architecture. In furniture, carved cabriole legs were the fashion, along with S-shaped curves and motifs. In the latter half of the 18th century, Chippendale furniture was in vogue, especially after the publication of Chippendale’s book of designs. His furniture was graceful, delicate and cultured and was further developed by Adam and Hepplewhite who introduced tapered legs, veneers and inlay to great effect.

From 1780-1820 Sheraton style was the most reproduced style in America during the Federal period, with bow-fronted chests and cabinets. Chairs now had sloping arms and upholstered seats with central splat detail on the backs.

19th Century Furniture: Shaker furniture is still a popular style today. It is defined by the simple, utilitarian furniture approved of by the religious communities in America. It is typically plain and unadorned, as was the architecture and lifestyle of those early immigrants.

Back in England, the Victorian era heralded much heavier and darker furniture than before. It is easily recognizable by its Gothic influence, and heavy substantial proportions. It often had elaborate carving or ornamentation to offset the dark finish of the oak, mahogany and walnut woods.

20th Century Furniture, and Onwards: With the dawn of the 20th century, Art Nouveau was a refreshing change. Furniture made a tremendous departure from what had gone before. Chair backs were balloon-shaped or bentwood. Furniture had curving lines, scalloped fronts and intricate patterns. This morphed into the Art Deco period which featured abstract designs, ornamental motifs, rectilinear shapes and a certain geometric style. It took the world by storm at the Paris Exhibition of 1925 after the dreary days of World War I. The Art Deco style is clearly illustrated in the pastel-coloured architecture of South Beach, Miami and the furniture within.

In furniture the Mid-Century Modern style was progressing, particularly influenced by Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen and Gio Ponti, whose mass-produced designs in man-made materials revolutionised furniture in the mid 20th century western world.

From the 1960’s onwards furniture became Contemporary. Scandinavian ideas featured light natural wood, with simple lines, utilitarian design and very little ornamentation. This was later developed still more by such designers as Marc Newson into the Post Modern and Contemporary style which is popular today for modern homes.

This is the story so far, but progress does not stand still. With the advent of new materials, glass furniture and new innovations, styles continue to develop. No doubt by the end of the 21st century, several new terms will have been added to the dictionary of furniture design and style.

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