In this post we are going to be looking at the history of upholstery and upholstered furniture in terms of the development of the skills, techniques and its establishment as a trade, as well as looking at some of the defining styles and fashions.
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Practicality, comfort, wealth, tastes and the technologies available throughout history have all played a part in the development of upholstery. The increase in international trade and travel over time, opened up a whole new world to people, offering exciting new materials (such as woods and textiles) as well as exotic new styles and an insight into various fads and fashions playing out in other countries. Revolutions (both social and Industrial) have opened the door to new techniques and trends that revolutionised the way furniture could be produced. It carries on to this day with the amazing possibilities opened up with the likes of laser cutting and 3D printing.
THE ANCIENT WORLD – 4000 BC – 476 AD – Egypt, Greece and Rome
“The Egyptians equipped their houses with great skill. They developed benches, folding beds, and especially chairs and stools of various kinds. The chairs are adapted to either squatting in the oriental manner – in which case the piece is lower than normal and its seat is deeper – or to sitting with ones legs hanging down in the western manner.”
(Sigfried Geidion, Mechanisation Takes Command, 1948)
It should come as no surprise that the ancient Egyptians were some of the earliest exponents of ornate and technical seating, and we can see their building and craftsmanship skills in many artefacts and buildings surviving today. They developed back supports and cushioning for their chairs and beds as well as footstools and more ergonomically shaped seats for comfort.
The best quality furniture, the most sturdy, decorative and lavish was created for the most wealthy in society (a pattern we will see throughout history) and was very much a status symbol, but most households with a degree of status would have had beds, chairs and stools that we would recognise by modern standards, with craftsmanship and skill that totally eclipsed the rudimentary equivalents in Neolithic Western Europe at the time.
The stools and chairs being made by the ancient Egyptians shared many techniques and materials for adding comfort that we recognise and use today in furniture making and upholstery. Stools and chairs would often have had a seat woven from either strips of leather plant fibre or fabric supported by the seat frame in the same way that caning and webbing has been applied since. See the plant fibre example below. Beds had wooden slats with cushioning made from wool.
So we know that as well as the weaving itself they would also have secured it with nails or tacks as we continue to do today. Other materials we would recognise today include animal hair for stuffing as well as linen (a flax based fabric) for sewn coverings. Flax thread would have also been used for the sewing. Leather was also used as a seat and stool covering. The Egyptians used wood carving and inlaying of wood, gold and ivory with ornate and dramatic results.
Ancient Greece and Rome came with a greater focus on comfort – socially, they were both more focussed on reclining than sitting upright. Meals were taken reclined, rather than upright at tables. Chairs were more formal and often used in the civic domain rather than domestic. They of course continued to use and create stools and chairs, with the klismos chair being one of the more well known.
The fabrics most prevalent would have been wool, linen, cotton and silk (for the wealthiest). This would have either been plain or embroidered, depending on your wealth. Materials used for padding and stuffing would have been wool and/or feathers for the rich and leaves, reeds and hay for the less well off. As with Egyptians, furniture could be very ornately carved and inlayed.
THE MIDDLE AGES – 476 AD – 1500
After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe in around 476 we entered the middle ages. With the rise of Christianity there was a rejection of the pagan religions of Greece and early Rome and with it also a rejection of the arts and ideals that were so strongly associated with them. The hyper real sculptures and realistic art was rejected for more stylised and geometric forms that we see in the Byzantine era. Similarly the Gothic style brought to Britain by the Normans was a complete rejection of the ancient world and focussed on ecclesiastical patterns borrowing heavily from the forms of the religious architecture. High arches and trefoil and quatrefoil motifs were very much the order of the day and much like ancient Greece and Egypt, would be revived as a style much later on.
There was a significant moment in the history of upholstery in that on December 11th 1465 The Worshipful Company of Upholders was recognised officially and given its coat of arms as the first trade guild in upholstery. It was created on March 1st 1360 and the word ‘upholder’ was the early form of upholsterer. The coat of arms depicts three tents as it is believed that tentmaking was the original skill that later incorporated furnishings and later upholstery as we know it. The purpose of the guild was (as is the case with guilds today) to ensure quality and training. It would also reprimand and fine those not meeting the standards of the skill or materials required, for example the restriction on using goat or deer hair for the stuffing.
The furniture in this period had great stylistic variation, but really nothing hugely notable in the way of upholstery innovation. There were still oak benches, stools and upright chairs with cushions. Chests (or coffers) became popular and were often built in mind to be sat on as well as for storage. These chests evolved to incorporate elements of the bench, with a back and arms. These were known as a settle and were later to evolve into a settee.
Fabrics used were wools, linen, silk and sometimes hemp. Embroidery and tapestry were used for decoration as well as comfort and for excluding drafts. Stuffings varied depending on wealth and ranged from leaves and hay for the less well off, through to animal hair and feathers for the wealthy.
The period from the middle ages up to 1660 was known as the ‘age of oak’ I furniture terms as it was the most prevalent material for furniture manufacture.
THE 16TH CENTURY – RENAISSANCE FURNITURE
The Renaissance in Italy had been happening for nearly a century before it really impacted on Britain. Of course people would have been aware of the return to the artistic standards of the classical age, but there was not a home movement as yet, anything of a Renaissance style would have been brought into England, rather than created there. That all changed upon the death of the Tudor monarch Henry VII in 1509.
The Tudors were a new dynasty, Henry VII having defeated the last of the Plantagenet kings, Richard III, at The Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry’s relatively short reign meant that upon his death there would be plenty of Plantagenet support still around, meaning his heir, the new king Henry VIII, had to act very quickly to secure the future of the dynasty. This was to to be played out in two ways; protecting the future and embellishing the past. We are all very aware of his desperate need for a male heir, but less is known about how Henry VIII helped popularise the Renaissance style and ideals in England.
He commissioned the Italian Renaissance sculptor Pierto Torrigiano to create a dazzling effigal monument to commemorate his parents. Created in black marble with cherubs and the effigies in gilt bronze, nothing of its grandeur – certainly not in this new, realistic style – had been seen by the English public before. Henry had to mark his father’s death with grandeur that is normally associated with longevity. Many greater kings had had much more humble monuments, but Henry had to cement the Tudor dynasty’s greatness in the minds of the people. Henry was also giving this new style a huge amount of publicity with a public royal seal of approval.
The new style continued to flourish and develop after the king’s death in 1547 throughout the reigns of his three children – Edward VII, Mary I and most famously and notably the 45 year reign of Elizabeth I. Under Elizabeth the ornate carvings that had begun to be developed (influenced by Italy but also the likes of modern day Belgium and The Netherlands) under her father’s reign really took hold with classically influenced architectural details, sea creatures, shells (particularly scallops), mythical creatures and botany all featuring heavily on the furniture of the time.
Tudor textile design took most of its inspiration from nature. Botanical and scenes of countryside pursuits such as hunting would have been common in wealthy households. Tapestry, embroidery and carpeting were all textile techniques that would have been common. Of course the wealthiest would have had the best quality with Flemish tapestry wall hangings or Turkish carpets. Upholstery as we know it was yet to be fully realised, so furniture often had loose cushions instead. Due to trade with Italy there were luxurious fabrics such as velvet and silk as well as the wools, cottons and linens available at home.
It was during this time that the fixing of fabric to chairs began to be seen. X-frame chairs had existed since Roman times where their ability to fold and their portability saw them used by army generals on campaigns. Their popularity grew over the decades for as the constant movement of a royal court meant they could travel easily. Very much the preserve of the wealthy, they became increasingly ornate. The example below is believed to have been used by Mary I in her marriage to Philip II of Spain. You can see the remains of the hessian stuffed with horsehair on the seat cushion and fixed arm cushions. Another notable example is the wheelchair created for Philip II from 1596 which references quilted taffeta with horsehair sewn in.
So, we can clearly trace the development of the profession with the establishment of techniques such as fixing stuffing into place and the covering and fixing of decorative and appropriate fabrics. It was possible to create much more comfortable as well as ornate shapes within the fabric with the introduction of rudimentary stitched edging. The ability to produce more ornamentation and comfort would have been very appealing to the wealthy of the time and is something we will see taken to new levels during the 17th century.
THE 17TH CENTURY
The 17th century was a time of huge change across Europe as more trade opened into the Asia, particularly for Britain through the East India Company. The early part of the century was also the time that the English Renaissance fully caught up with the likes of Italy and France (who had begun their own a century earlier) and there was a much wider appreciation for the arts in general, but certainly for decorative furnishings within the home.
It was also a century that saw great changes in the ruling of Britain. Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James I (VI of Scotland) became king of the newly formed Great Britain, establishing the Stuart dynasty. It was the century of revolution that saw Britain become a republic under Oliver Cromwell and kill its king, Charles I and then restore his son, Charles II in a space of 11 years. Inspired by Louis XIVs of France’s palace in Versailles Charles II and his court instigated their own revolution of taste and style. The arrival of French Huguenot craftsmen escaping religious persecution in France also brought new skills and tastes to Britain. The combination of a national feeling of renewal, global artistic inspiration and accessibility of new and exotic materials lead to a huge change in the way people lived and was best exemplified by the Baroque style that had become popular on the continent.
The skills being developed around fixing and distribution of stuffing as well as the sewing allowed for greater control and shaping of upholstered furniture. The availability of ornate fabrics, alongside the progression in carpentry and cabinet-making, it was possible to create spectacularly lavish pieces of furniture, furniture to demonstrate your wealth and status. Baroque borrowed heavily from both the Renaissance and Classical styles but on a more dramatic and grand scale. The word Baroque comes from the Portuguese word barocco, meaning “oddly shaped pearl”. So where the Renaissance (meaning re-birth in French) was about the rediscovering and building on the order of the ancient world, Baroque is far more exuberant and exaggerated in its motifs. As the century drew on it came to incorporate elements and materials from Asia and the Far-East.
It was the century that saw upholstery established properly as a skill and a trade. On June 14th 1626 The Worshipful Company of Upholders was granted its Royal Charter by Charles I (the original version was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and reissued by Charles II in 1668).
It was development of the upholsterer as an interior designer from around 1660 that we can really see the development of the profession – for those who could afford it. The wealthy were demanding greater comfort and style with their furniture and the upholsterer was there to provide it. As well as supplying the fabrics, the upholsterer would have overseen the whole look of a room (or house in some instances), working with other craftsmen who would supply the other elements such as doors, mirrors and other pieces of furniture. Notably, the upholsterer did not supply silk as this was the most expensive fabric and would have been bought by the customer directly from the fabric merchant (mercer).
DIFFERENT TYPES OF FURNITURE STUFFING
Stuffings continued to vary according to a person’s wealth, which is why the poorer quality stuffings haven’t survived due to rotting away. Goat and cattle hair as well as wool and feathers continued to be used. From 1680 it started to be fashionable to use horsehair for stuffing. This was due to the return of Charles II from exile in France. Animal hair was usually the by-product of animals used for meat. The French diet included a lot of horse and so the French used it for furniture. Charles II popularised it and was viewed as very fashionable to the wealthy British and it therefore became more common.
Attempts to fix padding with embroidery and quilting had been utilised throughout the century but it was around 1625 that upholsterers also turned to the expertise of saddlers, who were used to a tougher requirement. In stitching and fixing.
The fabrics used in the 16th century continued to be used in the 1700s but there was now more choice from further afield due to trade and travel expansion. Calico (from Calicut in India) became available and then reproduced in Britain. As with the practise of Japanning, fabrics would often have more exotic motifs either printed or embroidered on to them. Tapestry still also remained fairly popular.
Oak continued to be the most commonly used wood utilised up until around 1660 when walnut became the wood of choice. It was another fashion brought from France. It’s popularity was due to its attractive grain but also its greater flexibility and ease with carving. The period from 1660 – 1770 was known as the ‘age of walnut’.
THE 18th CENTURY
The early 18th Century was a time of the development of a wealthier middle class. The more limited royal powers introduced when Charles II came to the throne gave a steadily greater power and therefore wealth to the aristocracy, which had a ripple down effect to the middle classes. The changes to the monarchic power was also responsible for the start of The Age of the Enlightenment and people of the time were more open minded to new ideas in the arts, science, philosophy. Britain was also rapidly expanding its empire in both India and to the west in the Americas. This meant there were far more wealthy merchants and traders than ever before, all of whom wanted to demonstrate their status through their homes.
Socialising and comfort were also becoming more important to those showing off their new wealth, leading to a greater need for upholstery and more innovation in the designs of the furniture being shown off with daybeds, settees and sofas becoming more popular. The sofa was distinguished from a settee in that it had an upholstered wide seat and back (and often arms) whereas a settee was an extended version of an armchair. It was also the century that saw the development of upholstery techniques that are still very much part of the traditional upholstery we recognise today.
The Baroque style of furniture continued in its popularity for the first part of the new century, but it was gradually overtaken by the Rococo style. Rococo came from the French word rocaille meaning rock work and is the Italian translation. The style was not dissimilar from Baroque in that it took much of its influence from nature, but it was a more refined style. It had a lighter touch and used more curvature, with cabriole legs becoming fashionable. Moulding, Japanning, Chinoiserie, lacquering and inlaying all added to the elegance of Rococo furniture. Walnut overtook oak as the wood of choice due to its strength, workability (including the popular veneering) and attractiveness.
Originally a French style the British developed their own version of Rococo in the first part of the century, due to French taste falling out of favour due to the opposing sides taken by France and Britain during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701 – 14). It was less ostentatious than it’s European counterparts with an emphasis on elegant proportions rather than excessive decoration. The cabriole legs, ball and claw feet and curved vase back splats were the defining features of the chairs through the period. It can be seen through the Queen Anne style (reign 1702 -14), George I style (reign 1714 – 27) and through the reign of George II (reign 1727 – 60). The rise of Thomas Chippendale and his contemporaries – Thomas Sheraton (1751 – 1806) and George Hepplewhite (1727 – 1786), collectively known as The Big Three – as world leaders in the world of furniture making saw a more ornate style of Rococo being established towards the end of the period.
The late 18th Century was a time of enormous change across Europe. The Enlightenment had fully taken hold and this ran alongside both the American and French Revolutions (1776 and 1789 respectively). The forming of a new independent country and the fall of the monarchy in another led people to question their designated places in the world, with new possibilities open to them. Perhaps the most important revolution – certainly in terms of furniture making – was the Industrial one.
The Industrial Revolution began in approximately 1760 and continued well into the 19th Century. Coal was being produced heavily in Britain and steam power, mixed with the brilliant inventors of the time would lead to machinery being created that would revolutionise the way fabrics were printed and made, as well as how metal and wood were being manipulated and worked. It led to the rise of automation, mass production and the age of the factories. It reached its zenith under the reign of Queen Victoria.
Educational tourism was becoming more popular to those who could afford it, with wealthy young men embarking on a ‘Grand Tour’ – taking in the sites of antiquity around the Mediterranean. The rediscovery of the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum earlier in the century added fuel to the fire of all things ancient, and the classical world once again became the epitome of all things tasteful, with these young trend-setters setting the tone upon their return. This not only influenced the furniture of the time, but also the architecture, literature and art. The elaborate and ostentatious ornamentation of Baroque and Rococo faded away and a more refined and balanced approach to furniture came into play, not dissimilar to the Renaissance approach before it, but with more accuracy, symmetry and emphasis on classical proportioning and motifs, such as shield or urn shaped back splats.
As had been the case with stuffings over the years, the wealth of the customer would dictate what was used. Horsehair was still common, with eider still being the preserve of the wealthiest. Other stuffings used during the 1700s were a type of seaweed called Alva Marina, rag flock, wood wool, grass fibres (such as straw), wool waste known as shoddy and cotton millpuff.
Patterned fabrics continued to grow in popularity and more choice was becoming available due to the advancements in the production and printing of affordable fabrics such as linen and cotton. Originally wood blocks and then in 1752 engraved copper plates allowed the production of detail patterned and multi-coloured fabrics on a large scale. By 1783 engraved metal rollers were developed which allowed greater efficiency over the block technique.
The period from 1720 – 1770 was known as the ‘Age of Mahogany’. In 1721 the import tax on mahogany was scrapped and it became more readily available. It was still expensive, so was mainly used on fine pieces, but was popularised by the likes of Chippendale.
THE 19TH CENTURY
By the end of the 18th Century the France had become a republic and very soon after that an Empire. Napoleon Bonaparte had staged a coup in 1797 that led to him becoming Emperor by 1804. This led to instability and unrest across Europe as his military ambitions led to various wars – including with Britain. In Britain the monarch, George III was declared mad and his son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) took over his responsibilities as Prince Regent. The furniture styles of the beginning of the century came to be defined by these events, being known as Empire and Regency styles.
The 1820s were important for upholstery. It was at this time that ‘upholstery’ and ‘upholsterers’ came to be known generally to the population as we understand the terms today and was fully recognised as a craft. It was also around this time that the use of coiled springs was used. Firstly iron, and then later the more practical steel. The development of the Industrial Revolution meant that the cost of steel springs became lower and their use increased.
The Empire style was an evolution of Neo-classical but was more sparse in its decoration and overall more heavily proportioned and less ostentatious. It continued to take cues from ancient Greece and Rome but increasingly featured ancient Egyptian decoration and inspiration. One of the leaders of taste of the time was Thomas Hope (1769 – 1831). He was an interior designer and art collector who originally made his money from merchant banking. Like many wealthy men he had embarked on a Grand Tour in his youth and was very taken by the ancient world. He furnished his own home on Duchess Street in Marylebone in different styles inspired by the ancient world and later published a book Furniture and Interior Decoration in 1807 which showcased the rooms and proved to be hugely influential to furniture makers and their patrons of the time.
The Regency period was specifically from 1811 – 1820 as this was the timeframe from which the Prince Regent ruled in place of his father, however, it is often used to describe the timeframe of roughly 1790 – 1830s. The furniture of the period took inspiration from Empire furniture, particularly the French version, as well as the likes of influential taste-makers of the time, such as Hope. The Regency style was eclectic. As well as the use of symmetry and heavily borrowing from Neo-Classical form there was a great deal of artistic expression through the use of highly decorative veneers, motifs, gilt, and ornamentation. The period also saw revivals of Medieval styles, such as Gothic and Elizabethan which were sometimes incorporated as part of the expression of the Regency style but could also be categorised as their own separate styles within the regency timeframe. The key advocate and champion of the Regency style was the Prince Regent himself, which obviously saw its popularity established throughout the population.
The Prince Regent became king George IV upon the death of his father in 1820. His extravagant tastes continued until his own death in 1830, where his more restrained brother, William the IV (1765 – 1837) came to the throne. This was a period of transition in Britain as the excess of George IV rule and reign was replaced by a less extravagant version of the Regency style with heavier proportions, a nod to what was to come later, as it was also an important transition from the Regency to Victorian eras.
William IV died in 1837 and his niece, Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901, reigned 1837 – 1901) came to the throne. As previously mentioned, it was during her reign that the Industrial Revolution and the age of great British invention really took hold. Britain’s cities were expanding as more and more people moved from the country into the cities in order to work in the factories. It was a time of great opportunity as Industrialists and factory owners could achieve fantastic wealth, even if from humble beginnings. A broader and wealthier working class was also established, which meant furniture was now accessible to a much broader audience than ever before. The new materials available from either expanded trade or through invention also meant there was something for most people’s budget and taste. The wealthy and upper classes would still define and lead taste, but the middle classes were the ones popularising them by buying. Of course the now larger working class was generally unable to afford the luxuries of the classes above them – they were working in the factories, mills and sweatshops in order to make the wheels of the Industrial Revolution roll on and accommodate and provide for the tastes of the wealthier.
Due to the amount of invention (such as springs), new materials such as woods and fabric types and designs, the Victorian age was very eclectic in its style. Bold and busy patterns for fabrics were popular, and the forms of the upholstered furniture were now experimented with more than ever before. The sheer amount of furniture now accessible, along with the Victorian obsession with collecting object d’art meant that homes would often look very cluttered and busy by today’s standards. It also means it’s difficult to define the era as being of one particular, or standout style. Revival styles such as Renaissance, Gothic, Ancient (Egypt, Greek and Roman) as well as Neo-classical and Rococo were as well as influence from the East (the Islamic World, China and Japan and India) were very much defining elements of the era.
The later part of the century was also very important to the development of upholstery as it saw the prominence of Shoreditch established, the area that is known traditional home of the profession. It was not a particularly wealthy area which meant there was plenty of cheap labour who could be utilised to keep up with the demand from the expanding middle class. This combined with its accessibility to raw materials due to its proximity to the docks, the Grand Union Canal and the Shoreditch terminus made it the perfect location.
Large workshops and factories were established in the area and it also saw the rise of the ‘Garret Master’. They were much smaller scale manufacturers, usually just one person. Often speculatively making furniture, or taking smaller scale commissions. The name derived from their working often in tenement buildings (many in Bethnal Green) as a garret is an attic room, usually the cheapest to rent.
It was also the period that saw formal training for the profession established. In 1899 London County Council began to provide further education for furniture workers and the Shoreditch Technical Institute was created (renamed from the existing Haberdashers’ Aske’s School that was acquired to house it), running both full-time and evening class, the latter more for leisure. It later became The London College of Furniture.
The use and popularity of steel coiled (or double cone) springs was developing as the Industrial Revolution was. First patented in 1828 by a man named Samuel Pratt (a ‘Camp Equipage Maker’) for mattresses, they were soon used across chairs and sofas. They were seen as a huge step forward in terms of comfort – after a lot of trial and error in terms of their fixings, to start it was a bumpy ride as springs came loose and could ruin a piece of furniture. It had the effect of altering furniture design as seats had to become much deeper to allow for them. It did mean less horsehair was used for stuffing, but it was still required above the springs for comfort. The top fabric used on sprung furniture was often expensive and prone to damage from sunlight, so it was this that led to the Victorian reputation for gloomy interiors.
Deep buttoning was another technique that’s popularity increased from the Industrial Revolution, though it had been used earlier. Tufting (similar to buttoning but using tufts of fabric) and shallow buttoning had been around for some time, initially as a technique for holding stuffings in place and later also decoratively. The depth was restrained by the width of the fabric that could be made. With wider fabrics now possible, so deep buttoning became easier. Deep buttoning served more than one purpose in that it would hold stuffing very firmly in place as well as adding huge decorative embellishment and a sense of luxury to a piece of furniture, something very important to the image conscious Victorians. The fabric was expensive and it served as a way of further expressing your wealth. Comfort was another factor, but also a point of debate. There is an anecdote that originally the people that could most afford the style were rich men, who would often have people waiting to speak to them. The deep buttoning was uncomfortable enough that those waiting would not stay too long.
In the latter part of the century the independent sprung edge was developed which allowed for greater support and comfort behind the knee and leg. It gradually went out of fashion in the mid-20th Century.
The introduction of synthetic dyes during the period meant many new colours of fabrics were introduced. This, combined with influences from the Far East and India led to an even greater riot of colour and pattern in the Victorian home.
Mechanisation was now used to embroider, as well as print and therefore it became more accessible. One of the most important inventions was the Jacquard loom, which allowed complex patterns to be mass produced. It was invented in 1804 by a Frenchman, Joseph Marie Jacquard and became popular in Britain around 1830.
TRASITION YEARS – 1880 – 1915 ARTS AND CRAFTS, ART NOUVEAU
In the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign there was a shift in conscience by many towards the simplicity of the pre-industrial age. The 19th Century had seen change quite unlike anything that had gone before (and that would come again until the computer age) with the advent fully working electricity, the telephone and even very early cars. Queen Victoria died in in 1901 and had been a hugely stabilising influence on the population. She was succeeded by her son Edward VII who was viewed very unfavourably due to his womanising and excessive lifestyle. It was also a time of great global change and catastrophe with World War I, but there was huge opportunity for amazing artistic expression which eventually paved the way for Modernism.
It was also an important time as it saw the establishment of guilds such as The Century Guild, founded in 1882 by the designer A. H. Mackmurdo, in order to champion and improve craft, design and manufacturing standards and protect the authenticity of the craftsmen behind it.
Spanning from 1880 to 1920, the Arts and Crafts movement developed as a reaction against the mechanisation, the decline of rural life and perceived lack of artistry and craftsmanship that the Industrial Revolution had brought. More of a philosophy than a single style it was a return to an idealised, bucolic past. There was a focus on handcrafts such as carving, inlaying, exposed wood grain, metalwork and exposed construction. The followers were often political reformers as well as early exponents of sustainability and a care for the environment. It was realised through architecture, fabrics, furniture, art and design with the motifs taken from nature made most famous by William Morris, then popularised further by Liberty & Co in the UK and the likes of Gustav Stickley in the USA).
With the return to a more traditional approach to craftsmanship with Arts and Crafts, so traditional materials were used. Oak was very popular due to its grain and natural beauty. Veneers and inlays were also popular, but more traditional woods were used rather than the more exotic ivory.
The upholstery of armchair and sofas was very often loose cushioned, rather than fixed (with the exception of the arms, which were usually fixed and overstuffed) and fabrics were usually designs taken from nature, although leather was also common. Weaved and caned seats were also commonly used.
As you’d expect with a return to the past, there were no huge developments in techniques of upholstery and in fact techniques such as springing were often rejected. Inks for printing fabrics were usually natural where possible and wools, linens and silks were used and often hand-woven.
Art Nouveau began around the same time as Arts and Craft in 1880 and was popular until about 1915. It seemed to begin simultaneously around Europe under differing names, but with a shared desire to create functional yet beautiful objects in a completely ‘new’ way, nothing like what had come before it. Similarly to Arts and Crafts, there was not set style or behaviours which meant different countries had different ways of expressing it. For example, France had a focus on curved, floral lines and motifs, whereas Britain had a more geometric and linear approach (it was somewhat a hybrid of the Arts and Crafts movement in many cases). The Paris ‘Exposition Universelles’ in 1900 (similar to Britain’s Great Exhibition) was key in cementing the popularity of the style. It was viewed and appreciated on a global scale, but due to the location of the festival (and a weak turnout from other countries), it was known as a French Style.
The European Art Nouveau movement had more traditional fixed upholstery with a lot of overstuffing to create the curves with which it is associated, whereas the English approach was flatter and drop-in seats were common.
Bentwood chairs were very popular, again because it allowed the creation of curved, organic lines and there was not the same rejection of the use of techniques such as springing or mechanised wood production.
After the First World war there was a sense of renewal. The once very fixed class system was beginning to falter and women were now an established part of the workplace as a result of the war. There was a new found sense of liberation in the 1920s and 30s and it was expressed through much of Europe and America through the decadent and free flowing Art Deco style, helped by the innovations in materials that allowed exciting new shapes and designs. It wasn’t the only style at this time however, as in Germany the approach was more functional and brutal resulting in the Modernist movement with Schools such as Bauhaus. Both of these movements would come to an end with the out break of World War II.
The war years and the years immediately following saw a need for restraint in both styles and materials. Function overtook decoration and the new technologies and materials saw a greater simplicity and celebration of their industrial production and form. There was also a greater recognition of affordability and utility. Quality of these cheaper items was standardised, guaranteed and controlled by the introduction of the CC41 symbol in the early 1940s, instigated by Charles Tennyson, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Utility Furniture. The government’s Utility furniture scheme was led by the designer Gordon Russell. It was during this Utility period that the brand G Plan came into being, established by Donald Gomme. Unfortunately, the rationing of materials and the lack of export had the knock on effect of the establishment of cheaper out of town mass production that marked the decline of Shoreditch as the centre of the furniture trade.
The century also saw the establishment of The Association of Master Upholsterers (A.M.U) by Harry Francis Vaughan in 1947, the first organisation to represent upholsterers and makers of soft furnishings. It came about as a reaction to the refusal of permits to upholsterers (many injured and disabled) to re-establish businesses following the war. It led to a meeting of over 100 upholsterers at in Florida Hall, Bethnal Green where it was decided that the Association was needed. The establishment of the A.M.U also saw the relationship renewed with the Worshipful Company of Upholders after a century of lapse and in 1958 Harry was made a freeman of the company. It is now known as the A.M.U.S.F. (The Association of Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers).
The 1970s were an important time in that they were the starting point for the fire regulations that we still have in place today. A fire caused by foam in a factory in a Glasgow killed 20 people, leading the union leader, Jock Shanley to campaign for better fire regulation. It led to the establishment of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 – amended 1989, 1993, 2010 which are still in place today for domestic upholstery.
The 1980s were a particularly low point for the upholstery trade as many of the more established names had gone out of business due to the economic downturn of the 70s. The number of active furniture workers in Hackney and Tower Hamlets halved from 5,000 people in 1961 to 1987. Difficult work conditions and poor salaries meant it was no longer seen as an attractive industry to go in to and there were fewer apprentices. As the older generation retired, many traditional skills and a great deal of knowledge was lost.
Art Deco began in France at around 1915 and became hugely popular globally, largely due to its popularity in America where it was used from everything from teapots to buildings (such as the Chrysler Building in New York). It was a reaction to the doom and gloom of the war years and was a physical manifestation of the progress being made. Its aerodynamic and curved forms were representative of the developments in global travel, such as with ships, planes and motorcars. It represented liberation and used exciting new materials such as tubular metal and chrome which was designed for show as much as function. Historicism also played a key role in the movement and inspiration from periods such as Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and the Renaissance were reflected in the designs. It faded in popularity as World War II approached and global austerity loomed.
Modernism ran alongside Art Deco from around 1925 – 45 but it rejected the decoration of Deco and instead focussed on a more brutalist approach inspired by industry and technology. It shared some similarities with Art Deco in the use of glass and tubular steel, but was less ornate and decorative. Bent plywood, exposed structures and geometric forms are all notable characteristics. Key designers included Gerrit Rietveld and Le Corbusier.
The Bauhas School is perhaps the most famous Modernist design Schools. Set up by Walter Gropius in 1919 with an aim “the methodical removal of anything that is unnecessary”. The school was revolutionary in its experimentation and use of talented students as tutors. It’s left leaning views and ideologies fell foul of the Nazi regime and it was closed down in 1932.
Post-war prosperity and advances in manufacturing technology learnt during the war led to a more sculptural style from 1945 – 1970. This manifested itself through padded foams to create soft curved and often playful chair design as well as the use of often bright colours. Wood was also still a key component of design, but again used in more organic shapes using moulded plywood. Scandinavian design also had a huge influence in Britain during this time, with an emphasis on purity and simplicity of form, which was then picked up on and copied by English companies such as G Plan who recognised the competition from abroad.
Postmodernism as a philosophy had its beginnings in the 1960s, but it was the 1980s that saw it develop into a full movement seen throughout the arts and culture. The cynicism of the punk age of the 70s combined with the capitalistic and self-serving attitudes of the 1980s saw a rejection of the utopian social equality and mechanised approach of Modernism, which was seen as restrictive and dogmatic, in favour of an approach less worried about function and structure. It also continued the use of humour and irony from the decade before to subvert and provoke opinion.
Once again it was a return of revival styles as designers looked to the past for inspiration, which led to a resurgence of meaning and symbolism in the work. Initially many designers rejected technology in favour of more basic materials and techniques, including the use of recycling found objects into furniture. However, others did not totally reject the construction and engineering of the past and so there was somewhat of a divide between craft and technology that would come to be bridged as the computer technology of the 90s improved. For example the Australian Designer Marc Newson who embraced Rapid Prototyping which allowed computer drawings to be quickly transformed into plastic prototypes ahead of the full moulding process.
‘Contemporary’ can be a confusing word when talking about furniture as it essentially means ‘modern’ or which in turn can refer to the specific furniture style. Some define it as anything after the 19th Century, while others specify after the 1950s up to now. It’s a bit of a catch all term, which is understandable given it’s somewhat moveable, in that there is always something considered contemporary to people at the time the term is used. So, contemporary in this instance refers to furniture from the 1990s up to the present day.
Through the 90s there were some continuations in the quirks that Postmodernism had brought, but on the whole furniture became a bit more toned down and sleek in the mid to higher end, whereas the mass production side, which have been referred to as the ‘three letter’ stores (DFS for example) tended to focus on a more bulbous and large approach to design and comfort , arguably over quality – certainly not to everyone’s taste – which continues to the present day.
The 20th Century has seen a huge amount of development materials, the greatest since the Industrial Revolution, which has had a dramatic effect on the techniques used to make and upholster furniture. One of the most significant inventions was latex foam. It was first created in the late 1920s from natural rubber by the Dunlop Research Centre near Birmingham The difficulty of accessing natural rubber during WWII led to the US developing a manmade substitute known as SBR (styrene butadiene rubber) which we now call Polyurethanes, including Polyether and Polyester. Polypropylene followed in 1954. These new materials allowed for moulding foam into shapes that were usually stuffed traditionally and opened the way to much greater flexibility and economy in manufacturing and design, leading to it replacing traditionally sprung units in many instances. It also saw the introduction of rubberised animal hair and coir that could be produced in panels for cushions.
Compression springs that had formerly been needed were replaced by a different approach with a lateral suspension of close coiled, or zigzag (serpentine) springs on which the cushion sat. Mass production also saw the introduction of spring units, which were factory made and were a number of springs linked together. They can be reversible (for mattresses) and non-reversible (for chairs and sofas) and are fixed with lashes and wires. They can be tension or compression springs
The 20th Century saw much more variety in the use of materials for frames and covers. Many of the materials and techniques were developed for, or expedited and refined as a result of the World Wars.
The 1920s and saw the introduction of tubular steel which was often chrome plated, which were designed to be seen rather than covered as metal frames often had been in the past. Technology meant that it could be curved into just about any shape which was perfect for the shapes prevalent during the Art Deco period. Plywood (and later MDF) was also becoming a popular material along with early plastics. In the 1950s and 1960s moulded plastic techniques had become more refined, with injection moulding allowing for huge possibilities in furniture design and manufacture. Fibreglass was another material, that along with foams and plastics revolutionised the industry and was refined and popularised by Charles and Rae Eames
The invention of Nylon in 1935 meant there saw a huge change in the textile industry. Hard wearing, cheap and incredibly durable it became frequently used as a replacement to natural fabrics as well as a tough substitute in twines which had also been mainly naturally made up to that point. This was joined by other synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic and rayon, Dacron, Lycra and vinyl that all came to be used in upholstery, either as mixes with natural fibres, or on their own.
After 1945 pneumatic staple guns for upholstery became commercially used, firstly in the USA and then worldwide. This was a cheaper and quicker approach than tacking and had an obvious affect on the efficiencies of both production lines and for smaller scale operations.
Since the 20th Century there has been little in the way of significant developments in techniques or materials within the world of upholstery. We tend to use the same foams, fabrics, fibres, and tools. That is not to say we are at a standstill. New technologies are being developed, such as waterproof fabrics and the potential that 3D printing could offer in design and manufacturing – but this has yet to be fully realised, especially on any large scale. One of the most significant developments the 21st Century has had for upholstery is the full potential of the internet, and there are plenty of predominantly online (some companies will have a few showrooms) furniture retailers that are also doing incredibly well.