Furniture styles

To determine the most appropriate style for your home, it is necessary that you have at least a nodding acquaintance with the more important historical styles still in use. But first let us have a mutual understanding of what is meant by style.

Man has had furniture, chairs, tables, cabinets, chests, and so on, among his utilitarian artifacts for almost as long as he has had history.

The chair, for instance, has consisted for an incredibly long time of three basic elements: a platform on which to sit, an arrangement to hold the platform between 15 and 17 inches off the floor, and a back. The variations that have been made on these three elements are endless. Chairs have been huge and very tiny; high-backed and low-backed; with or without arms, with wide seats or narrow, deep or shallow seats. They have been profusely decorated or completely undecorated. And all manner of materials from the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, ranging through shells, bones, leather, stone, metal, wood, cloth, plastics and even cardboard, have been used in their construction.

It might seem odd, in view of the number of great minds that have appeared in the course of some 5,000 years of recorded history, that man hasn't achieved a reasonably ideal solution to the question of providing himself with a place to sit. He has solved the problem time and again, but only for a particular society, culture and technology.


Man has changed very little physically during the entire period that we know anything about so the three basic elements of a chair haven't changed either. But the manner in which the function of a chair has been obtained has varied considerably with the needs and desires of different cultures, the materials available to them, and their technologies.

The chair in which Louis XIV of France sat had to be, not only a place to rest his weary bones; but an expression of his opinion of himself and his regal position. The desired effect had to be achieved in terms of the materials and skills of the artisans of the time, and furthermore, these were used by the designer in such a way that the resulting object was a universally understood symbol.

This is an example of the real meaning of style in the best and fullest sense of the word. Style is an integrated expression of the culture, technology and philosophy of the time.

Unfortunately, this perfectly good word has become bastardized in recent years. Style has come to be used to refer to such things as a minor change in the tail fins of this year's car, or a change in the color name of a lipstick. Streamlining everything, from an automobile, where it may do some aerodynamic good, to an electrified egg beater, does not quite constitute style. Style refers to something with deeper roots.

In the field of furniture, looking back historically, we find a number of distinctive and distinguishable styles. Some of them are still in widespread use today while others have all but disappeared. A society can agree with and retain the values of its past or it can disagree with them, but it cannot wipe them out entirely and start over as though they had never existed.

A philosophical, religious, political or technical revolution often carries within itself the necessary definitions for a new style in the arts. At such times it is not unusual to see a new style of furniture emerge quite suddenly.

Something of the sort has been going on in our own time. It is our fatuousness as it has been the fatuousness of people at all times that our styles and tastes are "Modern". It is a safe bet that the American of 1860 considered himself "Modern" and thought of the American of 1760 as pretty old fashioned. By now a good many consider both rather quaint.

Students of economics, technology, history, politics and art all offer different explanations for the development of the thinking that has resulted in our modern style of design.

The chances are, too, that each of them would have a piece of the truth, but to discover how big a piece and how it relates to the others will require the perspective of a good deal more time.

In part this is because our "Modern" style is not yet fully developed and defined. A society that is well integrated and settled in its cultural, philosophic, and ethical values will produce a coherent iconography and concurrently integrated and well defined

Fig. 401. A recent Modern unit. Wood grain and texture provide visual interest rather than decorative detail. (Courtesy Herman Miller Furniture Co.)

styles of art and design. In a changing society individuals seek in several ways for values around which to base their lives, and in exactly the same way artists and designers search for values.

One method is for the designer to look to the past for a time and style with which he can identify, and to reproduce it in the present. Another approach is to find in the past, elements of more than one style, and then recombine them. The result is an eclectic design that for lack of a better term is called Traditional.

What is called Contemporary is yet another kind of eclectic design, but it is arrived at in a different way. You can either take something that is basically modern and soften it with period elements, or you start with a period piece and modernize it by stripping off most of the period elements. In either event the

Fig. 402. The exterior of a Modern cabinet often conceals a complex internal division of space. (Courtesy Herman Miller Furniture Co.)

results are similar. You have a thing that feels largely modern but yet smacks definitely of the past.

The difference between traditional and Contemporary design is one of emphasis rather than approach. Both seek areas of inspiration in the past for adaptation to the present. The difference lies in the manner of adaptation.

America lacks a long and continuous cultural tradition in the sense that, say, England and France have one, and we have long tended to look to Europe for our esthetic standards. This has undoubtedly something to do with the popularity here of Traditional and Contemporary styles based upon English and French motifs.

Another approach to the problem of styling is that of the Modernist. He starts with an analysis of the present and tries to anticipate the future. He is the experimenter, the innovator, the developer of a new style. He is the one who will pioneer the use of a new material, a new use for an old one, or a different construction technique.

His experiments and innovations result in new lines and forms that quite often jar the senses of his contemporaries. But if his analysis of his society and its technology were sound to begin with, there will be inevitable logic to his work that will make it gradually understandable and acceptable.

Modern Style

Now let's sift through some examples of Modern, Contemporary and Traditional styling and try to reach a point where we can begin to tell which from t'other.

The single most obvious characteristic of Modern styling is the reduction and simplification of decorative detail. This factor alone does not constitute a full formulation of style, but it is a characteristic that serves as a ready means of identification. For example, furniture of no prior periods exhibits as little decorative detail as the Modern unit illustrated in Fig. 401.

Although all Modern designs are not as chaste and stripped of decorative detail as this one, it is a good example of one of the main influences in the style.

  1. 402 is a larger, more complex unit by the same designer. While there is considerable interior subdivision of space, the exterior gives little hint of it. In both this and the preceding example the natural wood grain and overall proportioning are relied upon to provide visual interest. The simple door pulls on both units
  2. 403. An example of the long low look which characterizes many Modern pieces.

(Courtesy Gordon Brothers)

Fig. 403. An example of the long low look which characterizes many Modern pieces.

(Courtesy Gordon Brothers)

Fig. 404. The use of the stepup setback record-player compartment adds interest to this piece. (Design by the author.)

can hardly be called decorative and the leg treatments are simple and unobtrusive.

Another characteristic of Modern styling that, while by no means universal, is certainly widespread, is the emphasis on the horizontal line, the so-called "long low look." (Fig. 403).

This look has been encouraged by the current trend toward

Fig. 405. Although this cabinet is raised, a basically horizontal feeling is retained. The base and the use of various materials produce a high interesting effect. (Courtesy Herman Miiler Furniture Co.)

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