The importance of furniture as an indicator of the way people live has been recognized by many social historians as well as those interested solely in furniture. This recognition has led to a distinction between historians of antiques and decorative arts, and those who take a 'material culture' approach. The latter examine furniture as part of an effort to understand the society that made and used it. The analysis of furniture is often the same for both groups: it is the emphasis put on the results that varies along with the types of furniture examined.
Locating furniture types and their usage within the society that produced them will help to reveal the social structure, wealth and intellectual values that society had. In addition to this, the historical events and circumstances which influenced art and design, the economic, political, religious and intellectual climate had an effect on the way furniture was designed, made and used. All these strands help in explaining how ideas about function, comfort, style and use of materials are manifested in furniture. The production and use of furniture were also dependent on the materials and technology available to the makers. Therefore, to gain a fuller understanding, one also needs to investigate the construction, quality of workmanship and available tools.
Each subsequent section is therefore planned so that a brief historical context is followed by an analysis of functional types and the development of particular forms of furniture. This is supplemented by a discussion of stylistic features and constructional elements. Materials used in the process of making are then discussed, followed by an evaluation of the tools and techniques used in construction, from the conversion of timber to the final finish. The sections conclude with a brief discussion of the organization of the trade and the role of the craftsman.
This account is necessarily focused predominantly on England, America and France, but a similar approach can be applied to other traditions. We apologize to all colleagues for whom this is not the most relevant axis. We hope, however, that the approach taken together with the reference points provided in the text and bibliography will still be helpful in illuminating the range of materials, structures and techniques encountered by the furniture conservator. Some further discourse of the history of technology will be found in Part 2 with reference to upholstery and other non-wood materials.
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