This is the first article in a 4-part series trying to condense the bulk of the European and American mid-century style of furniture. Sorry if we missed some things. You’re always welcome to tell us via email.
These articles are going to be a little longer than what you’re used to read on blogs like this, but they’re going to be interesting, that much we can promise. The history of furniture is kind of overlooked because chairs and tables are as ubiquitous now as they were centuries ago.
The modern world cares for bigger stories, but furniture affects everything we do. I mean, could you imagine a world without chairs, without tables?
Mid-century furniture is a small niche if you compare it to the history of furniture in general. In fact, it is one of the smaller niches, having only been existing for about 80 years. We don’t have a specific starting date, but if we’re talking about modernism as a whole, our considerations have to change. Modern furniture, as we know it, is reaching a hundred years old. Some might say it has already surpassed the century mark, but we’ll get to that eventually.
Part one – Chippendale and the birth of furniture design
To write about how the Eames Lounge chair came to existence, we could start by talking about the long seats that ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese rulers used, and that we can only appreciate in museums nowadays.
That would make this series even longer, so we’re not going to do that. Instead, we are going to take one of the first European furniture designers, and explain how he got inspired by those ancient seats to create the predecessors of contemporary furniture.
His name was Thomas Chippendale, and as the BBC aptly stated in a documentary, he would grow up to create the defining masterpieces of the Georgian age (furniture-wise). Chippendale used a single noble material for his work: wood (more specifically mahogany), but he did more with it than most mid-century designers combined.
Born in Yorkshire, Great Britain, in 1718, Chippendale worked in his father’s shop from a very young age. Their trade? Carpentry. Only one object from that workshop currently remains in the world. It is a small wooden chest with nothing unusual about it, except for the fact that it is almost 200 years old.
The 18th century was the epoch in which wealthy people started consuming things in the materialistic manner that we emulate today. As commodities became widespread, Chippendale started producing furniture for these aristocratic buyers, and that’s where our story actually begins.
Making use of his innate skill and talent, Chippendale began establishing himself as a great craftsman and furniture designer, the very first one probably, in the modern sense of the word.
What separated him from his peers was that he published the first ever furniture catalog in Europe. A large, thick book with more than 160 drawings of his chair, table, and cabinet designs. He named three distinct styles on his work: Chinese, Gothic, and Modern (which, by the way, has nothing to do with modernism).
You might be wondering at this point: why should I care about Chippendale? I mean, it’s great that he created the first furniture catalog, but what does that have to do with mid-century furniture?
Well, for starters, that catalog began to be copied by other furniture makers that wanted to steal some of Chippendale’s successful designs. At the time, only architects, philosophers, and other related types of people wrote and published books. A furniture maker in the 18th century was a craftsman, someone with no intellectual gravitas, a lowlife worker.
Chippendale managed to accomplish two things for furniture makers: first, he proved that furniture design was as much of an art form as any other, and second, he paved the way for furniture makers to create their own catalogs, which accompanied the birth of different styles of furniture.
With that in mind, we can move on to part two of the series, when furniture design starts getting a little bit more fun.