21st century, today.
There are many choices when you decide to buy a wardrobe: you can rely on a classic built-in wardrobe, or prefer a luxury walk-in closet; you can browse through numerous collections dedicated to the bedroom area or request a custom-made wardrobe. There are no limits, except for our needs, tastes and financial possibilities, especially when it comes to personalized furniture.
Wardrobes (and other furniture with a “storage” function) originate from specific requirements and the need to archive, store and keep objects safe. But how have these needs evolved over time? And how have they been translated into decorations and specific furniture styles?
Let’s imagine having a time machine and embarking on a journey through the history of furniture, with the opportunity to admire these precious furniture pieces up close in the era they were conceived, designed and built. Many of these furniture items, due to their care and attention to detail, are still highly appreciated today, indicating that beyond the era and the influence of artistic movements, they still contribute to that idea of timeless style so cherished by Cosy International.
The Kibotos of Ancient Greece
The first stop on our journey through the history of furniture begins with Ancient Greece. This is not because previous civilizations did not have their own furniture elements, but because Greek furniture (which was partly inherited from Mesopotamian and Egyptian peoples) was later transmitted and reworked over the following centuries.
We can deduce the type of furniture that Ancient Greeks built and used from the scenes depicted on vases and carved on the surviving bas-reliefs.
A first distinction can already be made between “supporting furniture” (such as chairs and seats) and “containing furniture” (for example, the chest that stored linen). The former had references to the natural world, particularly in the lion-shaped legs of chairs, while the latter drew inspiration from architectural forms: the storage chests were conceived as “small houses”.
The aforementioned chest used for storing linen was called “kibotos” (κιβωτός), which can be translated as a wooden chest, ark, or wardrobe. Pausanias, a Greek writer and geographer who lived in the 2nd century AD, wrote in his “Description of Greece” about visiting the Kypselos chest at the sanctuary of Olympia, a votive offering believed to date back to the 6th century BC. The author described the furniture as a cedar wood chest with ivory friezes and gold elements.
However, among the Ancient Greeks, the most interesting furniture pieces were the seats, which could be distinguished into three types:
- the diphros, a stool of Egyptian or Assyrian origin, without backrests or armrests;
- the thronos, a seat of Egyptian origin reserved for gods, heroes and aristocrats, equipped with armrests, a backrest and a footstool;
- the klismos, a chair with four saber legs, with the two rear legs extending to form the backrest.
Another ancient Greek furniture piece was the kline, a bed used for both sleeping and dining during banquets.
The Armarium of the Romans
Continuing this brief history of furniture and wardrobes, we move on to Ancient Rome, which essentially continued the tradition of the Greeks but with more luxurious and extravagant furniture. The Italian word “armadio” (wardrobe) derives directly from the Latin “armarium,” which among the Romans identified a chest with internal shelves, closed by front doors, used to contain weapons or other tools.
However, as evidenced by the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the ancient Roman furniture was not extensive. Every corner of the house was carefully attended to, but the furniture was scarce and for storing their belongings they preferred to use rooms specifically designed for this purpose instead of custom-made containers (although safes have been found).
An interesting aspect of the Romans relates to the kline. While for the Greeks its use was undifferentiated for resting and banquets, the Romans had three types of beds:
- the lectus cufficularis, used for sleeping;
- the lectus lucubratorius, dedicated to study and reading;
- the lectus triclinaris, used for banquets (three beds were used, one for each side of the room).
The use of the bed was highly differentiated based on age, gender and social status. For example, the children of the head of the family and the slaves were not allowed to eat reclined on the lectus but had to sit at a table on designated stools.
Middle Ages, the era of the cassapanca (chest)
The Middle Ages is an extremely long period, composed of very different historical periods with distinct furniture styles.
This era began with the early centuries of Christianity, which divided furniture into two trends: on one hand, there was a preference for simple and essential furniture, more in line with the new religious morality, and on the other hand, the splendor of Byzantine furnishings, characterized by the use of precious materials and fabrics. We can deduce this not so much from the surviving authentic pieces until today (which are very few, such as the episcopal chair of Maximian in the Archdiocesan Museum of Ravenna), but from paintings and sculptures of the period.
We do not know much about furniture from the Early Middle Ages, although some metal objects have survived the centuries, such as keys, locks and hinges, crafted by skilled artisans. It seems that, more than ever, furniture in this era was truly “movable.” Due to the itinerant nature of the medieval court, which moved with its Lord from castle to castle, furnishings that were easily transportable were more suitable. Castles during this period probably did not have a fixed furniture arrangement, except for a few pieces like the throne and the bed.
The prominent furniture piece of the Middle Ages was undoubtedly the cassapanca, extremely useful for storing everything needed and essentially used as a travel trunk. Many pieces of furniture were designed to be easily packed, such as folding furniture and x-shaped chairs. Even high-ranking seats, meant for kings, pontiffs and magistrates, were designed to be transportable.
Something began to change during the Carolingian era when some elements of classical furniture returned and various types of tables became more widespread, ranging from rectangular ones for common use (also detachable) to round and monumental ones.
Turning to storage furniture, an example that has survived to this day is the “Cassa di Terracina”, a chest kept inside the Palazzo di Venezia in Rome. It’s an object from the mid-11th century that was intended to hold ecclesiastical documents. Observing it, it’s possible to distinguish Lombard, Norman, Byzantine and Arab influences in its style, all of which played important roles in the Lazio region of that era.
We can not talk about the Late Middle Ages without mentioning the Gothic style, which characterized all Europe from the 13th century until the Renaissance (even earlier in France). The close relationship between architecture and furnishing allowed for the creation of richer furniture, starting with the canopy bed. Chests, cassapanche and wardrobes continued to be produced, although for a long time, one of the few fixed furnishings in a typical medieval home remained the fireplace. This was also because houses did not yet have a true specialization of rooms, which began in monasteries (where, for example, the kitchen was separate from the rest). However, in the Gothic period, even bourgeois residences began to be structured differently, with bedrooms, dining halls, reception rooms and studies.
And the wardrobe, what about that?
In the Middle Ages, the Latin word “armarium” survived, which referred to a recess in the wall, initially protected by a wooden frame with a curtain and later by a wooden door. Subsequently, in sacristies, these niches evolved into independent furniture pieces where liturgical objects were kept. They were more similar to our wardrobes, but it was not until the 15th century that they became widespread in domestic settings.
Renaissance furniture and its wedding chests
We delve into the heart of this history of furniture with the so-called Renaissance period, in which Florence played a fundamental role. In this city, a deep interest in Ancient Greeks and Romans emerged, as well as a new focus on the representation of the human body (through anatomy) and spaces (through perspective). Italy was recognized as the direct heir to the rigor and rationality associated with classical culture. But even before becoming a leading city in terms of art and culture, Florence transformed into an economic and commercial power in the Late Middle Ages, with a flourishing urban bourgeoisie that became the new reference clientele for craft workshops. The seven Major Guilds and the fourteen Minor Guilds were established, including the Guild of Woodworkers.
These guilds were founded with the aim of ensuring steady work and a system of rules that prevented competition and injustices for their members. This also applied to the Guild of Woodworkers, which was subject to a set of rules. For instance, a distinction was made between “standard furniture”, which adhered to the shapes and sizes decided by the guild, and “ornate furniture”, which was more expensive as it deviated from the standard and was intended for the most demanding patrons. To produce such furniture, the workshop even had to request permission from the guild and pay a specific fee.
If we think about it, this distinction between “standard furniture” and “ornate furniture” is not so different from what we have today between “standard” wardrobes and custom wardrobes or walk-in closets.
These regulations ensured uniformity in the products and balance among the members of the guild, but it was also a limitation. It is no coincidence that this rule was abolished precisely during the 15th century when the demand for increasingly luxurious furniture continued to grow. This allowed for a departure from tradition and the exploration of a new style that we now identify as Renaissance furniture. Of course, medieval taste did not disappear overnight (especially concerning chairs and other “supportive furniture”), but a new concept of furniture spread.
In the 15th century, furniture drew inspiration from classical architectural forms. Architecture was an obligatory reference point since authentic pieces built by Greeks and Romans were not available. Chests, wardrobes and cassapanche were particularly influenced by this trend. They lost their “portable” function between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance and became proper pieces of furniture with painted or inlaid decorations. Chests, in particular, became so popular that they became a traditional wedding gift, known as wedding chests.
Some decorative elements were already present in the 14th century, especially geometric patterns, but in the new century, narrative paintings became preferred, telling stories from both ancient and contemporary times. For wedding chests, the popular themes were love stories from Greek and Roman mythology.
Inlay work, known as tarsia, also achieved widespread success as a decoration for chests and other furniture. This technique, mastered by the Guild of Woodworkers, involved gluing thin sheets of wood of different types or artificially colored, creating an alternation of light and dark zones within the decoration. One of the most exquisite examples of this technique is the Studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro in the Ducal Palace of Urbino.
In the 15th century, other types of furniture also emerged, such as the credenza (used for storing ready-to-eat food and drinks) and the bookcase.
The 16th Century between Grotesques and semi-precious stones
In the following century, Florence continued to play a fundamental role, but other influential cities joined its ranks, including Venice, Rome and Ferrara. The revolutionary artistic culture of the 15th century became institutionalized and found its place in official manuals.
When it comes to furniture, one of the most important characteristics of 16th century furnishings is the use of Grotesques (grottesche) in the decorations (typical of Roman painting during the time of Emperor Augustus). Grotesques are elements that draw inspiration from the imagery of classical antiquity and typically depict animals and monstrous figures alongside naturalistic or geometric decorations. We find chimeras, sphinxes, dolphins, putti and more…
This taste for Grotesques was found in the decorations of chests and other furniture items, which in the 16th century began to feature more intricate carvings rather than paintings. In particular, the cassone, originally a practical and functional piece of furniture, reached its peak of decoration, only to paradoxically enter a period of decline.
It is also worth noting the establishment of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici in 1588. As the name suggests, this institution was responsible for creating works in pietre dure (hard stones) and furnishings decorated with semi-precious stone inlays.
The Baroque of the Louis XIV Style
The 17th century marked a period of departure from the eras we have just seen, as Italian cities no longer held the dominant influence they once had (although they continued to play an important role). This, of course, applies to the history of furniture as well, with two fundamental poles: the Baroque Rome of the Popes and the Paris of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
An important change in trend occurred: while Renaissance furniture drew inspiration from architecture, in the 17th century, it drew more from sculpture. Renaissance furniture consisted of different pieces and distinct elements that were then assembled together, whereas Baroque furniture tended to be the result of elaborating on a single original block, just as in sculpture. This was especially true for Roman Baroque furniture, where even the decoration itself became more organic. In general, the most common decorative elements were shells and palm leaves, followed by cherubs, nymphs, satyrs, fantastic creatures (sphinxes, griffins, dragons, etc), animals (lions, insects, snakes, etc.), flowers and fruits.
Another important characteristic of Roman Baroque, which spread throughout Europe, was the use of gilding to further embellish the furniture. The 17th century style named after the Sun King, the Louis XIV Style, also adopted this feature.
With Louis XIV, the era of absolute monarchy officially began in France, which manifested itself in the arts and furniture as well. The king and his advisors even hindered the patronage and commissions of wealthy bourgeoisie to ensure that art recognized as national was exclusively commissioned by the king. Not surprisingly, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was founded in 1648 with the aim of establishing new rules of taste.
The Louis XIV Style was characterized by a certain variety of colors, evident in the use of different wood species and the employment of vibrant colors such as red, green, silver and gold. Polychrome effects were achieved through inlays and the use of hard stones. In the decorations, in addition to the aforementioned shells, acanthus leaves and tendrils were also prevalent.
Regarding wardrobes specifically, they became increasingly heavy and adorned with satyrs, children and giants, often serving as supporting elements. Interestingly, wardrobes were the only furniture pieces that did not have curved surfaces, unlike the rest of Louis XIV’s furniture.
The most famous cabinetmaker of this era was undoubtedly André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), who became the official cabinetmaker to the king in 1673. Throughout his life, he created many of the furnishings for the Palace of Versailles and also worked for other important European courts, gaining particular acclaim for his technique of inlaying with gilded brass and turtle shells.
Louis XIV Style and other 18th Century Styles
During the 18th century, France became the leading country in European culture.
However, this century also marked the decline of absolutism and the rise of a wealthy and powerful bourgeoisie. Changes also occurred in the field of interior design, even before the French Revolution. The monumental style of the 17th century court gave way to the emergence of smaller, comfortable and intimate spaces during the 18th century. Furniture and the spaces they occupied were downsized to meet the real needs for comfort and luxury of the dominant classes.
The artistic currents that had the greatest impact on the 18th century and its interior design were initially Rococo and, in the second half of the century, Neoclassicism.
In France, the first phase of Rococo coincided with the regency period of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, after the death of the Sun King. During these years, functional differentiation of spaces began, with separate salons for receiving guests, conversation, music and reading. Anticipating the Louis XV Style, regency furniture was characterized by the use of gilded or painted bronze.
Of significant influence was the so-called “gusto rocaille”, a type of decoration inspired by natural motifs such as rocks, shells and water droplets, resulting in exuberant designs played out in curves and counter-curves.
However, it was with the Louis XV style (which can be dated from 1730 to 1760) that Rococo reached its full maturity in interior design. The most influential figure was no longer the monarch, in contrast to the Louis XIV Style: powerful women such as Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry became the driving forces behind the new taste, influencing the fashion and customs of their century.
One of the key characteristics of the Louis XV Style was luminosity, achieved through wallpapers and light-colored polychromies, as well as the introduction of French doors that allowed light to enter from floor level. The decorative elements incorporated were diverse, resulting in an eclectic style: palm fronds, acanthus leaves, ropes, pearls, shells, monkeys, grotesques, rosettes, ovals and more…
The last style of the Ancien Régime was Louis XVI style, followed by the Directory Style, which was influenced by Neoclassicism. Emerging as a reaction to Rococo and fueled by a renewed passion for archaeology in Europe, this style was characterized by the disappearance of curved lines in favor of symmetrical compositions. Decorative motifs drew inspiration from ancient objects such as candelabras, lyres, braziers and vases.
The notable furniture makers of the Neoclassical period were Jean-François Oeben and Jean-Henri Riesener, while among the Italians we remember Giuseppe Maggiolini (1738-1814), an esteemed master cabinetmaker.
Empire State Furniture and 19th Century Revival
What happened to the history of furniture after the execution of Louis XVI?
It was a truly unusual period for furniture production. In France, the possessions of the court and aristocracy were confiscated and put up for sale, with the English being the primary buyers. Soon after, the Directory period would come to an end and the Napoleonic era would begin, confirming Paris as the capital of Europe. Napoleon’s conquests also contributed to the importation of foreign artworks, including Italian works, which prompted artists and craftsmen to engage with ancient Rome.
If one wanted to find a common factor in all 19th century furnishing styles, that was the Historismus, or Historicism, characterized by a deep interest in the past (although the 19th century had its notable exceptions, such as Impressionism in art). Amid revivals and historicist trends, the two main furniture styles of this century were Neoclassicism and Neo-Gothic, both of which already existed in the 18th century.
Setting aside Neo-Gothic for a moment, let’s remain in France. During the Napoleonic era, the so-called Empire Style emerged, which supported imperial propaganda with grand and almost imperial furnishings. The formal characteristics of Empire Style furniture included symmetry, straight lines, the use of dark woods and decorations with motifs inspired by the ancient world. The furniture, intended to be more aesthetically pleasing than functional, was massive, heavy and possessed its own autonomy.
With the fall of Napoleon and the Restoration period, the style transformed into a more bourgeois version of the Empire Style, favoring lighter woods for cozier environments and adopting curvilinear lines.
Another scenario opened up: that of England, which was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Some figures of the time rejected this profound economic and social change, which also led to the production of low-quality goods and instead sought refuge in an idealized Middle Ages. Neo-Gothic, which had already been successful between 1750 and 1760, experienced a revival in the 19th century with a type of furniture that did not correspond to true medieval Gothic but rather to an idealized notion of it. The first 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (architect of Big Ben) for Windsor Castle.
In 1861, as a protest against industrial processes, William Morris, Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with the aim of promoting furniture and decorative arts that prioritized the quality of artisanal craftsmanship. In particular, William Morris (1834-1896), one of the leading figures of the Arts and Crafts movement (and a precursor to industrial design), theorized a type of work that allowed artisans to preserve their creativity without succumbing to the alienation of mechanical and industrial labor. Additionally, with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement, furniture began to change, abandoning the Neo-Gothic style in favor of a style that we now know as Liberty or Art Nouveau.
We can not conclude our discussion of the 19th century without mentioning two examples of anti-historicism. The first is represented by patented furniture, pieces designed by engineers who studied objects that could fulfill multiple functions to meet the needs of the middle classes, such as a chair that transforms into a sofa or a bed that doubles as a wardrobe. Patented furniture was primarily produced in the United States, a rising nation.
The second example is the furniture of Michael Thonet (1796-1871), a true designer who created the famous Thonet Chairs, which remain a classic in modern furniture today. Thonet particularly revolutionized “supporting furniture” by developing a technique that involved steaming wood to make it pliable. Thonet’s approach was highly modern and greatly inspired the new century.
Towards the 20th century
This first part of the history of furniture concludes during the Belle Époque and soon it will continue with all the innovations brought by the 20th century (including the official birth of design).
Read now the second part and subscribe to our newsletter!