A Short History of Regional Design
Historically, furniture design has been greatly influenced by geography. The customs of the local culture as well as the available materials dictated much of what was produced by furniture makers. Of course, all this changed with the advent of overseas trade, mail-order catalogs, and now the Internet.
China inspired the West
Chinese furniture has a much longer history than Western furniture, yet there are certain characteristics that clearly identify it as coming from a different tradition. That changed in the 18th century when things Chinese became very popular due to increased trade between China and the West.
Chinoiserie was very much in vogue, and many European and American cabinetmakers borrowed salient details from the Chinese tradition, such as an increased use of lacquer work, bamboo motifs, and other forms of decoration deemed typically Chinese.
The common cabriole leg with its ball-and-claw foot was inspired by Chinese forms, and curves and spirals are common elements in furniture from the Ming period to the present. There is a greater use of splay in much Chinese furniture for balance and stability than in Western furniture, and perhaps one of the most characteristic features is the inward facing horse’s hoof foot found on many tables and cabinets.
What really characterizes Chinese furniture, however, is somewhat different. Common woods used by Chinese furniture makers include various rosewoods, blackwoods, and sandalwoods. Much use is made of inlays of jade, mother-of-pearl, and lapus lazuli, together with the frequent use of various metals such as copper, pewter, and brass.
Most of all it is the joinery that sets Chinese furniture apart as a distinct style. It is at once both very sophisticated and entirely subservient to the overall design. Apparently plain miters hide complicated three-way dovetails, and much use is made of wedged mechanical joints.
Influenced by Japan’s traditions
It is a curious fact that although traditional Japanese houses require little furniture (most storage space such as chests and closets usually being built-in, and most sleeping and eating being done on the floor) there have been various strong Japanese influences on Western furniture making and woodworking in general.
Ironically, many of the so-called Japanese influences have had little to do with actual Japanese furniture: techniques such as japanning, which became popular in the 17th century, was inspired largely by the Chinese process of lacquer work. The fad for including so-called Japanese decorative elements in 18th-century furniture, such as the vogue for bamboo, have few counterparts in Japanese furniture.
Even a floor-based culture such as Japan, however, has a need for storage, and the tansu and the nagamochi are two examples of genuine Japanese furniture that have become known in the West and that have been used by some contemporary designers. The tansu represents a whole class of drawer-type furnishings that range from simple chests to bolted-door chests, and the stacked, step-like chests-on-chests. Nagamochi are trunks or box-like pieces, similarly made in an endless variety of sizes. Then there is a whole class of shelving units, often made with doors, for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes such as the tea ceremony or exhibiting scrolls.
Typical of all these pieces is a masterful craftsmanship — exemplified by famously complex Japanese joinery — expressed in an extremely understated way. While some Japanese furniture, such as traveling sea chests, may often be lavishly decorated, the general esthetic is one of sedate restraint.
Shoji screens which developed from sliding doors designed to admit light through lightweight opaque paper panels, are typical of Japanese furniture in that very little joinery, especially any end grain, is exposed, it not being felt that end grain is as attractive as face or side grain.
The three Louis’s of France
No list of common furniture styles would be complete without some mention of French furniture, since it has had a continual influence on American taste. Most notable are the three periods named for three ruling monarchs.
Like the monarch for whom the first period (approximately the last half of the 17th century) is named, Louis XIV furniture is large and magnificent, and the embodiment of dignity and luxury.
The Louis XV period, approximately 1715-1774, contrasts with the previous period primarily by being virtually completely curvilinear as opposed to square and straight-lined. Although Louis XV is often thought of as being the epitome of licentiousness and immoral luxury, the furniture of the time is by no means tasteless, but rather extremely elegant and tasteful.
The third Louis (XVI) was influenced by his wife, Marie-Antoinette of Austria, who brought with her more classic ideals, which were further enhanced by recent discoveries at Pompeii. Furniture (together with other art forms) changed again from curvilinear to straight, but more delicately than under Louis XIV.
Spain proselytized furniture design
The Spanish missionaries who first arrived in Mexico, and then traveled into what is now California and New Mexico, naturally produced furniture — as the need arose — in a form similar to their own native Spanish tradition. What they made was relatively crude when compared to furniture made in the eastern United States. This was partly the result of different conditions — namely, that much was made by unskilled Indians working in the missions under the guidance of the Padres — and partly because their very tradition that they brought from Spain was relatively crude.
Early Spanish furniture of the Gothic period was similar to much other Gothic furniture from the rest of Europe. But Spain was subsequently occupied for several hundred years by the Moors. Despite the fact that much Moorish influence, in the form of pattern and carving, remains in Spanish furniture, there was an understandable and conscious effort to reject things Moorish after the final expulsion of the Moors. Subsequent Spanish furniture never quite attained the sophistication of furniture from other parts of Europe, and qualities such as sturdiness and utility remained dominant, resulting in the aggressive use of nails and leather rather than fabric for upholstery.
Mission chests and cupboardsare predominantly rectangular, but both chairs and tables have characteristically splayed legs, the tables frequently being strengthened by iron under-bracing. All types of furniture may be carved, but most often with simple, repetitive patterns made by repeated direct chisel cuts.
It is interesting to note that proponents of the American Arts and Crafts style, appreciating the foursquare merits of various Mission-made furniture, adopted various designs, most notably that of the armchair (or sillón), and ignorant of the more sophisticated Spanish originals, emphasized its clumsiness, christening this new variety of Arts and Crafts furniture “Mission Style.” Although such Mission furniture enjoyed only a very brief popularity, the name “Mission” has remained an unfortunate synonym for other Arts and Crafts furniture.
Graham Blackburn is a furniture maker, author, and illustrator, and publisher of Blackburn Books (www.blackburnbooks.com) in Bearsville, N.Y.