Most views of the 19th century, at least from the point of furniture design, are of an era of ponderous, over upholstered furniture, dominated by revival styles spanning the 17th and 18th centuries. But the 19th century is really known for great industrial design, think of the work of  Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for example. The furniture industry was no longer the dynamo moving the economy of England and this is reflected in its furniture design.

The great innovation of the 19th century, aside from the industrial dynamism, was in the large scale expositions that were mounted such as the Great Exhibition in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, a building created in nine months for the purpose of promoting the industry and crafts of a nation. By all accounts, the machinery and inventions shown were extraordinary. Furniture design was not uplifted by the event, however, despite new technology that certainly affected other crafts such as glass and ceramics.

Originality was sparked, however, by the work of William Morris who inspired designers in what would be called the Arts and Crafts Movement. These designers were clearly not in the tradition of 18th century maker/designers. Their furniture, think of the work of Arthur Mackmurdo or Charles Rennie Mackintosh or C.F.A. Voysey, was made with British materials and eschewed traditional forms, proportions and decoration.

The difference, at least from my point of view, between the eclat of the 18th and 20th centuries in furniture design is largely an intellectual one. Eighteenth century furniture is a continuum built on function, beautiful materials, astounding craftsmanship and wonderful design. This furniture was certainly status conscious. Twentieth century furniture is an intellectual pursuit aiming at comfort, functionality and originality, a status consciousness of originality. The seeds of it all were in that maligned era known as the 19th century.


I was looking through Judith Miller’s book, “Chairs”, and thinking how extraordinary the time period 1680-1780 was for the English cabinetmaking trade. From a provincial, even parochial, industry to a major exporter and world class design center is a breath taking achievement, one hundred years notwithstanding.

I think you could say the same about furniture design from 1920-2000, but in a different fashion. Furniture design after the First World War became an international business. Each country had national industries, of course, but successful designs were bruited for being “international”.

What were the forces that made the design industry, in all fields, so active in these two eras? Was it quality of craftsmanship, good design invigorating more good design, market forces or something else that fostered this creativity?

The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment and I think the intellectual rigor that was applied to the sciences was also applied to the arts. The impetus, in the parameters of the moment, was to excel. In the 20th century there was a desire to create a true international style that would not be defined by one country.

The 18th century was an era of profound craftsmanship which applied to all facets of furniture manufacture. The 20th century was an era of new materials–tubular steel, sheet metal, plastics, card board, plywood, etc. Ergonomic function was the only necessity driving furniture design.

To omit the 19th century is to ignore the consequences of where the 18th century left off and the spring board by which the 20th century evolved. It was an era of craftsmanship dominated less by imagination and more by comfort. And yet there were provincial successes like William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, men who intuited internationalism.

What, I wonder, is the next step in this continuum?


The inevitable conflation of American design stems in part to rules and regulations but also to corporate preference. This can be seen in the “strips” that every medium sized city has as well as the packaging in markets or even in the “new” buildings in cities–think Donald Trump and his repetitive marble and gold. All of it is a sham of some sort, designed to get us to buy in to it and we do. Government regulations are no better often mandating superfluity, but at least the by-product is supposed to be safety. All of it has a repetitive quality.

A unique visual experience can be found, however, at Burning Man, an event held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada every Labor Day weekend. My brother’s succinct but accurate description is “Grubby, amusing, inventive, sexy, shallow, inclusive”. I would add colorful, zany, committed and different. Different in that there is an unwritten article of faith on the part of Burners to give of themselves to the event, if not physically, then mentally. For myself, more a voyeur than anything else, and there were many of us, it was an endless visual treat of ideas that included the burning man, the temple, the Trojan Horse, art buses of all descriptions and sweet things such as the set of motorized cupcakes or the house that roamed the streets and Playa. It was a unique carnival of human eccentricity made real. The zeitgeist was for the unexpected to be made normal.

If I have to draw any conclusions about this American trip and Burning Man, it is to say that we are an exceptional country, blessed with great assets both in the geography and the populace. As I read Ian McEwan’s latest novel, “Solar”, I am reminded that the impediments to our future is us and our own limited vision. It is only the desire to make things work that actually makes them work. It isn’t just money or rhetoric or public programs or even private enterprise that makes things work. Sustaining things that do work also requires re-examination and tweaking, that is the essence of great design in that it is never truly finished. Perhaps the greatest designers ever known in America were the members of the Constitutional Congress who agreed in principle that their work would have to be amended with time. I would like to say it was farsighted, but I don’t think it was. It was more a comment on human nature.