Technological Advances in Furniture Manufacture and Design
For many hundreds of years, furniture in all its forms was a craftsman’s art, produced almost entirely by hand, mainly in wood, occasionally with the addition of cast metal parts, and sometimes finished with upholstery. Sourcing natural materials and applying old skills meant that furniture was either functional, or fine, as costs to produce could easily escalate due to the labour intensive process of manufacture.
There were possibilities to create component parts in a repetitive way by using a lathe (turned legs and spindles for example) but this machine still had to be run by hand and was exhausting and skilled work.
With the advent of the Industrial revolution and especially the coming of steam power and the harnessing of energy through hydroelectric and wind power, these formerly arduous tasks became much easier. Fabrics could be woven on looms, and furniture could be made on powered lathes, reducing the cost and time immensely.
The Victorian era in the UK and Europe & America especially saw advancing technology creating new materials such as papier mache, steamed wood, and many composite proto-plastics from organic materials. Many of these could be used practically in furniture manufacture. The 1851 exhibition was a watershed in new products made of unexpected things unleashed on a still incredulous public.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th mass manufacturing with all its economic benefit had been brought to the sphere of furniture too, pioneered it could probably be claimed, by Thonet in Austria, who championed bent and laminated wood to produce light, cheap and democratic furniture. The designs of this furniture heralded the new century too, with a lack of superfluous detail and a simple process of manufacture.
Thonet too were one of the very first companies to advocate the use of tubular steel in furniture manufacturing, adding a strong, flexible and very modern look to commercially available chairs in particular.
The strength of the new materials now meant that furniture had different and varied forms, freeing up the designer to take daring chances with structure, hence the revolutionary creation of the cantilever, usually ascribed to Mart Stam
This moment was really a watershed, as from here a plethora of new materials, including aluminium, meant furniture could be moulded, formed, cast and the boundaries for the designers had really been removed. In the 1950s & 60’s plastics further opened up the field for explorations of form.
Moving into the present day, additional technological progression has meant that carbon fibre, recycled materials, AI and 3D modelling are blurring the boundaries between craftsmanship and design, and automatic design. In some ways, we haven’t moved so far, as chairs, tables and the numerous categories of furniture types are still fairly similar, but certainly in terms of appearance and material, time has opened up a myriad of possibilities.