Metal

Metals have been used since antiquity for making and ornamenting furniture. Splendid Egyptian pieces, such as the thrones and stool that were found in the tomb of the youthful Tutankhamen (14th century BCE), were rich in gold mounts (decorative details). In ancient Greece, bronze, iron, and silver were used for making furniture. Finds that were buried in the ashes of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy included tables with folding underframes and beds made partly or entirely of metal.

Throughout the Middle Ages the metal chair—for example, the 7th-century throne belonging to Dagobert I, king of the Franks—was used for special ceremonies.

Various examples of silver furniture have been preserved; not solid metal, they consist of embossed (decorated with relief) or chased (hammered) plates of silver fastened to a wooden core. Silver furniture was made for palaces in the days when monarchs amassed enormous wealth. In times of war, the silver mountings were melted down and turned into silver coins; it was thus that all the silver furniture disappeared from the royal palaces of France.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, iron furniture became a typical industrial product. Iron beds in particular became popular. Because they could be easily folded up, they were much in demand as camp beds; one used by Napoleon at St. Helena is a famous example. As ordinary beds in private homes or hotels, they could be decorated with brass ornaments such as big knobs screwed onto their posts. Iron has also been used for chairs; for instance, rocking chairs or, perhaps more frequently, garden chairs that can stand out in the rain, protected only by a coat of paint.

The possibilities of steel for furniture were explored in Germany during the 1920s, notably by architects associated with the Bauhaus, where architects, designers, and artists experimented with modern materials. Experiments were made with steel springs and chromium plated steel tubing. The genre was soon imitated, and tubular steel furniture became a symbol of functionalism. Since then, thinner tubing and plaited wire, with a resiliency similar to that found in wickerwork chairs have been used. Because of its lightness, aluminium became a furniture material.

Metal, however, is still employed primarily for locks, mounts, and hinges used on furniture or for purely ornamental purposes. In the Middle Ages, simply constructed chests demanded extensive use of iron bands to provide extra strength, and the ends of these bands were cut to form decorative shapes. Cabinets of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were decorated with mounts of pewter or bronze. Inlaid objects, decorated with material such as wood or ivory, set into the surface of the veneer furniture made at royal furniture workshops in France, especially so-called boulle furniture, were marked by an elaborate style of marquetry (patterns formed by the insertion of pieces of wood, shell, ivory, or metal into a wood veneer); they were influenced by Asian traditions, in which blue-tempered steel, brass, and copper were customarily used.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in England and the American colonies, a refined style for furniture mounts, keyhole escutcheons (an ornamental shield around a keyhole), hinges, and the like, all based largely on Chinese models, was developed. The design of these mounts was dictated by a clear functional purpose, in contrast to contemporary French Rococo mounts, the majority of which were ornamental, often at the expense of utility. French bronze founders displayed great skill in making purely decorative mounts for the bodies of chests of drawers and protective mounts for corners and legs.

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