Furniture industry

WRITTEN BY Charles Harold Hayward Freelance writer and artist. Editor, Woodworker, 1939–65. Author of English Period Furniture and others.

Furniture industry, all the companies and activities involved in the design, manufacture, distribution, and sale of functional and decorative objects of household equipment.

The modern manufacture of furniture, as distinct from its design, is a major mass-production industry in Europe, the U.S., and other advanced regions. It is very largely a 20th-century industry, its development having awaited the growth of a mass consumer market as well as the development of the mass-production technique. Earlier furniture making was a handicraft, going back to the most ancient civilizations.

mahogany card table Card table, mahogany (primary wood) with original gold patina and gold stenciling, maker unknown, c. 1828; in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. 70.48 × 91.74 × 91.44 cm.
Photograph by Jenny O’Donnell. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Thomas W. Ayton Fund, Alliance Art Auction, Eugene Beesley Fund and James V. Sweetser Fund, 80.374

The word furniture comes from the French fourniture, which means equipment. In most other European languages, however, the corresponding word (German Möbel, French meuble, Spanish mueble, Italian mobile) is derived from the Latin adjective mobilis, meaning movable. The Continental terms describe the intrinsic character of furniture better than the English word. To be furniture, it must be movable. Since furniture presupposes some degree of residential permanency, however, it is understandable that no independent furniture types seem to have been developed among the Melanesians or the Inuit in Greenland or the Mongolian nomads in Asia.

In general, furniture produced in the past 5,000 years has not undergone innovative development in any functional sense. An Egyptian folding stool dating from about 1500 BCE fulfils the same functional requirements and possesses the same basic features as a modern one. Only since the mid-20th century, with entirely new synthetic materials such as plastic and completely new fabrication techniques such as casting, have there been signs of a radical revision of the concept of furniture.


Examples of ancient furniture are extremely rare, but there is considerable knowledge of the pieces made by craftsmen in China, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome from pictorial representations. Beds, tables, chairs, boxes, stools, chests, and other pieces were nearly always made of natural wood, though veneering was known in Egypt, where it was used to produce coffin cases of great durability. The Romans too used veneers, though chiefly for decorative purposes. Bronze was also used in Roman tables, stools, and couch frames. Pompeian wall paintings show that plain, undecorated wooden tables and benches were standard in kitchens and workshops and that panelled cupboards were common. Chests for valuables were covered with plates or bound with iron.

The early Middle Ages were much poorer in household furnishings of every kind than the Roman world, but in the 14th and 15th century a growing affluence brought a major revival of furniture making, with many new types of cupboards, boxes with compartments, and various sorts of desks appearing. The religious houses in particular were well supplied with furniture. Framed panelling, reintroduced in the Burgundian Netherlands, quickly spread. The mortise and tenon and mitre provided greatly improved joints.

The growing sophistication in technique brought a revolutionary change in the men who made furniture. Where previously carpenters and joiners had made furniture along with every kind of building construction in wood, several circumstances combined to create a new profession: that of cabinetmaker. The most important technical factor was the introduction, or reintroduction, of veneering, first in western Europe, then in Britain, North America, and elsewhere.

In the earlier system of framework and panel, the framing gave the required strength in both length and width, the panel being a mere filling held in grooves. Its attractive appearance was the result of highlights and shadows produced by the framing, moldings, and carving, which formed the chief means of decoration. The grain of the wood was incidental.

The introduction of veneering coincided with the use of walnut as a furniture wood. It was soon realized that the grain of such a wood could be of decorative value, especially as veneering made it possible to use such visually attractive parts of the wood as burrs, butts, and curls, unreliable if used as solid wood. It became the custom to have the grain of the veneer generally run crosswise because of its decorative appearance. Marquetry (a form of inlay in veneer) was another example of the decorative use of the grain and colour of wood in surfaces unbroken by panelling.

In addition to veneering and the new system of construction it involved, an impetus to the establishment of the trade of furniture making came from the increasing market demand provided by the growing affluence of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the new system of construction, plain, flat parts are dovetailed together and then veneered. It can be contrasted with the traditional framed method of rails and stiles put together with mortise and tenon joints, the panels fitting in grooves.

Coinciding with this change, or preceding it by a few years, was another breakaway: that of the chairmaker, who had become another specialized craftsman. At first chairmaking was closely associated with wood turning but by the 18th century turned legs were largely replaced by shaped legs of the cabriole type. Chairmaking has remained a separate branch of furniture making ever since.

This growth of cabinetmaking as a trade of its own eventually resulted in a considerable degree of standardization of methods of construction, particularly in the types of joints used and in the thicknesses of wood for the various parts. It also resulted in an increased division of labour. Turnery became a separate trade, while the cabinetmaker assembled the turned parts; veneer and marquetry cutting was not done by the cabinetmaker although he laid both; carving too called for the skill and experience and tools of a craftsman who did nothing else. Another specialist, the upholsterer, did his work after the chairmaker had made the frame; and it seems likely that finishing was seldom done by the cabinetmaker. This was certainly the case later in the 19th century when French polishing became the standard method of finishing furniture.

An important 19th-century change was the separation within the industry of those who made furniture from those who sold it. Previously the customer commissioned a cabinetmaker, perhaps after consulting a design book by Chippendale, Hepplewhite, or Sheraton. Or he might work out his requirements in consultation with the cabinetmaker or, if he were sufficiently wealthy, employ an architect or designer. After the midyears of the 19th century the showroom gained popularity. A large store often retained its own workshops where special items were made to customers’ requirements, but for the greater part it became the practice to buy wholesale from furniture making firms.

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