Whether constructional principles are exploited as a motif or elegance of overall shape is stressed through stylization, every piece of furniture can be embellished in one way or another. A piece of furniture may be embellished by effects produced in the structural wood itself or in another kind of wood added to the first; that is, by carving and turning or by inlay work. Alternatively, the piece can be decorated by the addition of materials other than wood, such as bronze, ivory, or marble. Finally, in the case of furniture meant for sitting or lying on, there is the possibility of textile enrichment in such forms as upholstery, loose covers, and cushions.
There are examples of furniture carving in Egypt at the time of the pyramids: animal legs of cedarwood on biers, beds, and chairs; and ducks’ heads terminating the legs of folding stools. Elegant carved headrests took the place of pillows in this hot climate.
Whereas carving does not appear to have played a significant part in Greek and Roman furniture, it was a dominant feature of European furniture of the Middle Ages. The fronts of chests bear Gothic perpendicular tracery (decorative interlacing of lines) in imitation of the decorative stonework found in ecclesiastical architecture.
Another source of inspiration for carved ornaments in bourgeois furniture was the ecclesiastical wood carving found in choir stalls and altarpieces. The art of the wood-carver also flourished in Islam during the Middle Ages, especially in kiosks (open pavilions), oriel (large bay windows projecting from the wall and supported by brackets) windows, and Quran lecterns. The most original and remarkable form of medieval carved ornamentation was the linenfold, which resembled folded sheets of linen laid on the surface of the wood. Although the motif was widely known, its origins are obscure.
During the Renaissance, wood-carvers changed motifs: new ornamental riches, partly inspired by the forms of Classical antiquity, began to adorn cupboards and chests. Acanthus leaf designs, strapwork (narrow bands folded, crossed, and sometimes interlaced), Moresque designs, the auricular (resembling a flowered Alpine primrose) style, bunches of fruit, and scrollwork for over a hundred years dominated the figure-carving repertoires of European cabinetmakers.
During the 17th century the fashion for carved work at first receded but came to the fore again in the console tables (tables designed to fit against the wall), mirror frames, and high-backed chairs of Court Baroque. In striking contrast to lacquer cabinets of Japan, sumptuous, gilded carved work became popular on the stands invariably made for them when they were imported to Europe.
In the 18th century, wood-carvers enjoyed a final splendid period of prosperity when the Rococo style of ornamentation called for the plastic effects obtainable through carving. Whole panels of woodwork, doors, mirror frames, chairs, and settees were adorned with the finest wood carving, featuring combinations of mussel-shell patterns and naturalistic vines and plant tendrils. Even in English furniture of more sober design there were ample opportunities for carved work; for example, in the many chairback variations in the Chippendale manner.
American cabinetmakers were particularly skilful at carving block fronts (the sides curving forward and the middle receding) on the drawers of chests of drawers, and the English at making tea tables with piecrust (scalloped) tops.