From cabinets to couches, masterpieces created by Britain’s greatest designers adorn the finest homes worldwide. But where did it all start?
According to Einstein, “a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin,” are all that a man requires to be happy. With the exception of the violin, of course, these are modest requirements and the stuff of everyday life. But it hasn’t always been this way, for furniture was once anything but common.
It barely existed at all 700 years ago – at least not as we know it. This was in no small part due to life being somewhat more nomadic: even royalty spent much time on the road, accompanied by their court and most of their worldly goods. King John, we know, lost most of his while crossing The Wash. Such grand homes as existed will have had little more than rugs, tapestries and wall-hangings complemented with, perhaps, a few basic chairs and chests. Almost all will have been made locally.
‘An art form in its own right’
With the passage of time, the tendency to wander diminished, and the demand for less-portable and more robust items of furniture increased. Initially, items were big, heavily carved and invariably of native oak. The start of the 17th century saw embellishments appearing in the form of gilding; upholstery featured increasingly. By the early 18th century, furniture was becoming altogether more artistic with the introduction of veneering and marquetry; rarer woods such as ebony and walnut had long since gained a strong footing. Soon, furniture making became an art form in its own right; it was only a matter of time before it became the domain of specialised craftsmen rather than the jobbing carpenter.
Arguably, the golden era of British furniture-making arrived in the latter part of the 18th century; at the very least it saw some of its most famous designers. Some specialised in a particular item – Thomas Chippendale, for example, being a noted cabinet designer. Chippendale’s fame, however, is derived just as much from a book as his furniture. In 1754, he published The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director – a catalogue of furniture designs. There is no sure way of ascertaining how many of these were his own: for certain many were copied by other designers of the time. Regardless, the book led to Chippendale being known in some circles, rather contentiously, as the Shakespeare of furniture-making.
Through supporting documentation, we know that much genuine Chippendale work survives. By quirk of fate, Yorkshire reputedly has more buildings housing his (and his son’s), furniture than any other county. Nostell Priory, for example, has an extensive collection, including a carved mahogany table in the library. But his greatest commission came from Harewood House whose owner, Edwin Lascelles, spent some £10,000 on his work – an enormous sum for the time.
Thomas Sheraton was an 18th century designer whose fame was derived more through the influence he had on others rather than anything he produced himself. He too produced a book (in four parts) – The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book – rather like a “how-to” manual. His style, like much of Chippendale’s later work, was neo-classical – that is, a revival inspired by classical antiquities, especially of the Greek and Egyptian style.
Robert Adam was one of its greatest protagonists, although he adapted it to produce his own “Adam style.” An architect by trade, his designs for buildings frequently went right down to their rooms and the contents in them. He too worked on Harewood House, as well as the interior of Syon Park in London where there is a rare, Adam-designed carpet in the Red Drawing Room.
Adam was not, however, the first architect with another string to his bow. William Kent “discovered” furniture design in around 1725. His style is generally referred to as Palladian (from which neo-classicism evolved), although his more severe critics claim it wanders into the baroque style of ornateness.
Some of the earliest examples of Kent’s work are at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. They include the breath-taking green velvet bed in The Green-Velvet Bedchamber, and chairs in The Saloon – where he also painted the ceiling (painting being another of his talents).
Inspiration and influence frequently came from overseas – particularly continental Europe. Several furniture-makers learned their craft there before setting up shop here – becoming so successful that we regularly refer to them as being British when, strictly speaking, they were not. For example, Grinling Gibbons, the acclaimed woodcarver, was born in Rotterdam and did not arrive on British shores until he had served his apprenticeship, probably in Amsterdam. Similarly, Thomas Hope – another “British” designer, was born in Amsterdam, not coming to Britain until he was 26.
Nonetheless, the continental impact (and that from farther afield), on British designers is incontrovertible. Styles influenced the furnishings of entire buildings; the chinoiserie (Chinese-style), of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion is a classic example – reaching its finest in the Banqueting Hall and Music Room. In west London, meanwhile, Horace Walpole indulged his taste for neo-Gothicism in Strawberry Hill House. The Library demonstrates this in fine style.
The seeds of mass production
By the mid-19th century, furniture was becoming less the preserve of the well-to-do, adopting a more utilitarian and less ostentatious nature – although that is not to say that ornamentation fell entirely out of favour. Furniture-makers dabbled in new materials such as plywood and iron; the seeds of mass production were gradually germinating.
It was a concept that was vigorously, though briefly, fought by the Arts and Crafts movement who believed that mass production had no place in society. It was personified by William Morris, who intoned, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It appeared that Victorian society, however, was increasingly inclined to adopt the “useful” rather than “beautiful” concept.
The 1890s and then the advent of the 20th century saw several designers and companies leave their mark. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was already well-established as an architect by the time the new century had dawned. In fact, he was just as prolific as an architect (his work includes the Glasgow School of Art, one of Britain’s earliest Art Nouveau buildings), as he was a furniture designer.
But it is for the latter that he is frequently remembered – and in particular the interiors and furniture of four Glasgow tea rooms owned by Miss Cranston. If one thing epitomises Mackintosh more than anything, it is the high-backed chairs he designed for these premises. Those in the Ladies’ Luncheon Room in Ingram Street were of dark-stained oak; their boldly erect backs were over five feet tall, comprising a frame with two broad central vertical bars. Although the seats were well-upholstered, their design hardly encouraged customers to linger; which may have been exactly what Miss Cranston intended.
Elsewhere, the wheels of mass-production were turning apace. Ebenezer Gomme started off in a modest way – at one stage making chairs in his garden shed. By 1909, he had opened a factory in High Wycombe that was to house one of Britain’s first furniture production lines. It may sound oxymoronic, but he specialised in everything: whichever room you wished to furnish, the factory invariably produced something for it. Gomme died in 1931.
The advent of the Second World War led to a different kind of market. Sir Gordon Russell was already well-established in the trade, his work during the 1920s and 1930s being greatly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. However, wartime destruction and subsequent austerity led to a huge demand for basic, well-made utility furniture – a demand that Russell met with considerable zeal.
The cessation of hostilities and the gradual return to normality led to a requirement for items that were rather more than utilitarian. Ebenezer Gomme’s factory, having already mastered the concept of mass-production, took it to the next logical stage – mass production of quality items. And thus was born G-Plan.
Production line manufacturing eventually led to the ubiquitous and oft-derided flat-pack. That is not to say, however, that iconic design was to become a thing of the past. On the contrary: the latter part of the 20th century produced some mass-produced classics – none more so than those of Robin Day.
Among his successes were two items produced for the furniture company of Hille. The beech Hillestak chair with its renowned plywood seat, designed by him in 1950; and what must be the epitome of mass-produced, utility furniture – the Hille polypropylene, steel-framed stacking chair.
For sure there are more design classics yet to come – not least since Britain still has a myriad of independent producers, designers and craftsmen creating individual pieces as a matter of routine or to special commission. Some may end up in mass-production: tables, chairs… as Einstein said. And doubtless other pieces that contribute to our happiness.
Words: Chris Fautley