The History of Modern Furniture Design
Before the 19th century, furniture design was often elaborate and ornate but not necessarily functional. The often complex design came first in importance, and woods were often dark and fabrics expensive. The value of the furniture was determined by how long it took an artisan to make it. The advent of modern design provided more economical methods of constructing furniture, along with new, more flexible materials. Furniture became “lighter” in more than one sense. The emphasis shifted from furniture as a piece of art to furniture as a functional and accessible belonging. Modern furniture changed the focus from traditional to new, original and practical with an eye toward the future. Modern furniture design evolved out of a number of different influences, including the Werkbund and Bauhaus Schools, exotic designs from foreign countries, Art Nouveau and the designers and artists of the period.
Designers of modern furniture were looking for new materials with which to construct their pieces. Gone were the days of sculptured wood; a new era of steel, molded plywood and plastics had arrived. Just as a frame of reference, Charles and Ray Eames used molded plywood in many of their famous designs. The theme for modern furniture was to strike a balance between aesthetics and function, finally creating some furniture that was practical and accessible but still appealing to our senses. Everything was new: shapes, textures, colors and ways of thinking about furniture.
At the time, disregarding the traditions of past furniture making was shocking to some. New materials and new methods came together in an innovative way, incorporating principles of art and technology. This new philosophy fit with the members of the Deutscher Werkbund. This was a German government-sponsored organization whose purpose was to promote German furniture design to the rest of the world. The idea behind this organization was that using new materials and mass production would allow the general population to be exposed to new art and new design through furniture. People such as Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe were involved with the Werkbund School and later with the Bauhaus School as well.
Foreign influences, Asian and African design in particular, began to have a noticeable effect on modern furniture makers. Japanese design in particular held a great influence during this time period because when Japan’s economic policies changed toward the end of the 19th century, trade with Japan became much more commonplace. The Japanese styles featured designs that were simple but also elegant and beautiful. The Japanese furniture designers tended to use solid colors and very little decoration. Some of the Art Nouveau movement is said to have been heavily influenced by Japanese design principles. People like Frank Lloyd Wright, Eileen Gray and Charles Rennie Macintosh are known for their ability to blend the Japanese style with the Art Deco.
There is a chair that is said to symbolize the modern furniture design movement: the Wassily Chair. Marcel Breuer designed this chair, which is also known as “Model B3,” in 1925 in Dessau, Germany. Marcel Breuer was a cabinetmaker, and he created this revolutionary chair using new materials, such as tubular steel and leather straps. The Wassily Chair almost appears to be floating in the air due to its abstract design and thin, symmetrical shape.
Designed in France in 1927, the Eileen Gray Side Table is another iconic modern furniture piece. It’s asymmetrical and has a definite nonconformist feel but is also very functional. If used as a bedside table, the Eileen Gray Side Table can be adjusted in such a way to allow the user to eat breakfast in bed. This piece was inspired by the tubular steel used by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus School around the same time period.
The Barcelona Chair, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was unique at the time but is a classic now and still quite popular. It was created in 1929 for the Barcelona Exposition, where Mies van der Rohe contributed his work to the German Pavilion. The Barcelona Chair often comes with an ottoman and is made of leather, specifically Spinneybeck volo cowhide panels. This chair won the Museum of Modern Art award in 1977, giving it the status of being both furniture and functional art. Mies van der Rohe is said to have been inspired by “X”-shaped footstools used by the Romans and the folding chairs used in Egypt when he created the Barcelona Chair.
Eero Saarinen created the Tulip Chair in 1957. The Tulip Chair has only one leg in the center, which is made from fiberglass-reinforced resin. The designer wanted to get away from the holistic furniture designs of the past — and he accomplished that goal dramatically. The excitement caused by the Tulip Chair was contagious, and it won the Museum of Modern Art Award in 1969. The Tulip Chair offers various options, such as arms, and it is available in either white or black. You can also choose from a range of different colors for the optional cushion. Even today, the Tulip Chair is still one of the most popular items sold in modern furniture stores.
The Noguchi Coffee Table, designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1948, is an intriguing combination of wood and glass, both simple and beautiful. This coffee table strikes the perfect balance between function and appearance, in that it truly looks like a piece of art but serves the same purpose any coffee table would in a home. It is considered a staple of modern furniture design. Noguchi is known for his love of elegant simplicity and his experimentation with different materials in his designs.
It should be noted that not all furniture produced during the period of the late 19th century through the present is actually considered “modern” in terms of design. There are quite a few reproductions of traditional design still being made, and there is also a third type of design somewhere in between “modern” and “traditional” called “transitional.” This style of furniture may not fit neatly into one category or the other, but rather is more a blend of the two. This style of furniture often creates a visual reference to classic Greek or non-Western styles, such as tribal African or Asian scrollwork, among others.
Although people’s taste in furniture certainly changes and evolves as the years pass, the concepts of modern furniture design seem to be standing the test of time. Many homeowners choose modern furniture for its practicality, durability, usefulness and portability. Today’s furniture designers are continuing to develop the concepts and principles put forth by the furniture designers of the last century.
There are still new building techniques, different shapes and new materials to be incorporated into furniture making. Independence, free thought and simplicity are the overriding influences in modern furniture design, and current furniture designers are continuing to embrace the present while still honoring the contributions of the past. Even though many of the most iconic designs were created during the middle of the last century, they still serve to define the concept of modern furniture design, concepts Viesso employs and builds upon to further advance design and aesthetics, with an amazing collection of furniture designs inspired by the decades past.
We don’t know what the future holds in terms of our furniture needs, but chances are good that these now-classic, ultimately functional designs will continue to hold their place of prominence and usefulness, and we want to provide that dependability in an eco-friendly, natural process.