Humans have built chairs to sit on and cupboards to keep their things in since as long ago as 3100-2500 BC, when the Neolithic period, people used stone building blocks to make their interiors more inhabitable.
But it didn’t take long for things to become more sophisticated. Chairs, desks, and the all-important bed evolved considerably through the Egyptian and Greek periods, with ornate forms jostling for their place alongside the strictly utilitarian functions of humanity’s first furniture.
Thankfully, Egypt’s arid climate has meant that examples of what the ancients sat on remain in good condition from which to draw inspiration today. The tomb of Queen Hetepheres, for example, was found to contain a gilded bed and chairs from around 2550BC. Her ornate furniture was in stark contrast to the everyday objects of regular Egyptian households.
We know of Ancient Greek furniture not just directly from the surviving pieces, but from images of other furniture on vases. Greek furniture was influenced by that of Ancient Egypt, though it eventually outgrew that early rigidity to become something elegant and curvy.
The thought of medieval furniture may conjure up images of torture chambers packed with grotesque inventions for causing intense pain. The regular household furniture of a thousand years ago isn’t far off! Stark, blocky wooden chairs, and beds may have been useful for throwing at invading Normans, but they weren’t very pleasant to sit on.
Things loosened up a bit in the renaissance era, as art and education flourished, enriching our culture forever. Fifteenth-century craftsmen would show off with baroque designs of unnecessary detail and grandeur, inspired by the Greeks and Egyptians, but using new techniques and materials that would have been impossible two millennia previously. The furniture-makers got over themselves by the time of the Jacobean era. Austerity followed the confident excesses of the Renaissance, and a return to severe and clunky furniture recalled the torture of the medieval period. Following the English Civil War, the royals resumed full power and demanded fancier furniture as befitted their esteemed behinds. Colorful upholstery and ornate carvings became the order of the day.
Pieces of this nature made their way over to America with the first immigrants of the colonial period. Still, they were soon streamlined for practical reasons, resulting in a new American style that was simple and effective.
But the furniture was about to undergo another significant change, with the turn of the industrial revolution and the opportunity to work with new materials and in the spirit of the mass production. This became known as the revival style since it was now relatively straightforward to emulate the furniture styles of cultures gone by.
This industrialization also paved the way for the bold experimenters of the 20th century to toy with form and created pieces that would have looked alien to cultures of the past. Bauhaus, Art Deco, and Modernist furniture all sublimated the frills and innovations of earlier styles, creating a look that was simultaneously more simple yet more sophisticated than what had come before.
For a glimpse through this extraordinary evolutionary story, take a look at this new gif set from Angie’s List. It truly brings to life the way our ancestors lived and loafed before us.