Four Kinds of Furniture


The act of naming something is, in my view, a kind of violence. But it also is a helpful form of shorthand.

With furniture, the most common way to name it is by its ornament (Chippendale, Arts & Crafts, Ikea). This name gives us a rough idea of what it looks like, perhaps when it was built and maybe even some of its construction details (mahogany, through-tenons, confirmat screws).

But what if the piece of furniture doesn’t really have much ornament? What if we are unsure as to when it was built? What if the piece appears in the furniture record made out of every conceivable hardwood and softwood?

What do we call this furniture? One term is “vernacular,” though that word casts a net that’s too wide. Vernacular encompasses 15th-century trestle tables with wedged through-tenons and pine shelves assembled with drywall screws in a mall kiosk.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about furniture on an X/Y axis. The X axis is ornament, from no ornament to all ornament (think Grinling Gibbons). The Y axis is construction quality, from bombproof to being a bomb ready to explode when the humidity changes.

This X/Y axis creates four spaces and four kinds of furniture, and it gives us a sliding scale that we can use to discuss how furniture is made. Let’s talk about these four types.

1. Furniture of the rich who have taste – high-style ornamentation and outstanding joinery. This is almost always the furniture of the well-to-do. This category encompasses furniture from every era, from the Middle Ages up to five minutes ago. It’s period highboys from Thomas Chippendale. Prairie settees from Frank Lloyd Wright. Rockers from Sam Maloof. This is furniture that is built by commission – not manufactured. It is made by the best artisans by the people who can afford it. Its ornamentation might not be ostentatious, but it is still incredibly evident, distinctive and expensive to produce (think James Krenov). The furniture is also – for lack of a better word – specific and not vague. It represents the focused efforts of the builder and the customer to produce something unique.

2. Furniture of the poseurs – high-style ornamentation and crap craftsmanship. This is the world of Ethan Allen, Williams-Sonoma, Baker (and many other commercial manufacturers) who seek to provide furniture that looks like it belongs to the very rich at a price that the upper-middle class can afford. In general, this is the furniture that looks good (even great) from a distance but fails when examined closely. Wood selection is terrible. The finish is more obscuring than revealing of the grain. The interior components of the furniture are generic and have more in common with mass-manufactured furniture. Dovetails are made by machine. Mortise-and-tenon joinery is via cope-and-stick (at best). But most of all, it is manufactured – the parts are interchangeable with other pieces from the same run. And the detailing is, in general, somewhat generic. It is designed to appeal to thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of customers – not just one customer. So these pieces are never polarizing and almost always like melba toast: pleasant but not memorable.

3. Furniture of the desperate – furniture built only on price. With these pieces, style and craftsmanship are subsumed by the bottom line. This is the particleboard furniture covered in plastic veneer that looks like oak (if you have been drinking). It is designed only to hit a price point and provide a temporary function. It is constructed in a way that it will survive only about five years or one significant family move before becoming too wobbly to keep. It is designed by the opportunistic to fill the temporary needs of the desperate.

4. Furniture of necessity – high craftsmanship and low (to non-existent) ornament. This is the furniture of people who require, demand or desire durability and have no need for ornament or high-style detail. The most important aspect of this class of furniture is that it be useful, durable and able to remain attractive (or non-offensive) over a long period of time. Examples of this furniture: Institutional or work furniture, military furniture, servant-quarters furniture, school furniture, traveling furniture, library furniture, and (most of all) furniture made for and by craftsmen for their own use. While ornament is not entire eschewed, it is always secondary to the function and durability of the finished object.

So I know that the above classification is flawed. It doesn’t account for some outliers – low craftsmen who build bonnet-top highboys for their homes. The extremely rich who are content to furnish their homes from WalMart. The occasional piece of manufactured furniture that is transcendental – Eames chairs, Stella cafe chairs and so forth.

But it is better than calling anything that lacks carving as: Shaker.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in the Works, Furniture of Necessity. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Four Kinds of Furniture

  1. John Callaway says:

    I think is a pretty reasonable assessment on furniture quality/style/construction. The book should be great. Get it on the shelf so we can read it. ( and that Studley book, and that Roubo book , and that moulding book )

  2. Jim Eckman says:

    I’ve always preferred simple but sturdy furniture, I’ve certainly made enough bookcases for friends and myself. While many books cover various styles of furniture, the closest that comes to your book is Watson’s “Furniture Making Plain & Simple” which is a great book, but doesn’t cover all of the field. Really looking forward to your book.

  3. Graham Burbank says:

    An expanded category 2 would surely include a certain desk I looked at in a New York gallery made of stack-laminated and disc-sander carved MDF, painted to look like mahogany, pseudo-art neuveau that appeared like it was the unholy offspring of Wendell Castle art-furniture and an Antonio Gaudi piece. Someone figured it was worth $15,000. I figured it needed 10 minutes with a garden hose. ‘Nuff said?

  4. Ches Spencer says:

    When I look at and touch category #1, I understand the focused efforts of all involved, but I FEEL the love!

  5. Eric R says:

    I don’t buy all your books, but I will buy this one.
    The X/Y axis description really helps define what you are trying to relay.
    And, your 4 different classes are right on the money.
    Allow someone (myself) who is below your talent level, but has followed you for years,to make an observation.
    You’ve grown in every phase of this craft over the last few years.

    • Andrew says:

      Christopher Schwarz is a machine (pun intended). He should be proud of the contribution he is making to the craft, it is nothing short of inspiring. Thank you!

  6. Dean says:

    A “Z” axis could represent sub-categories of the 4 types of furniture, or a progression within each category. Or, maybe not. Just thinking.

    • Gerald says:

      I once read George Walker discuss three rules of good design (or something like that). I think they were beauty (ornament), durabiltiy (construction quality) and usefulness. The Z axis should be usefulness. It may be totally pleasing to the eye and have strong joinery but an uncomfortable chair or a table that’s too low to fit your knees under etc is no use to anyone.

  7. Great post, Chris!

    Chris

  8. Scott S. says:

    Kind of like the progression of life if you are fortunate enough: 3, 4, 2, 1.
    I’m partial to stage 4, myself.

  9. Eric Bennett says:

    This has all the makings of a cult! You’re messing with my mind!
    I’ve always like furniture from the Arts & Crafts movement, so it wasn’t a huge leap.
    I’m planning a trip to Boston and wanted to see what furniture they had at the Museum of Fine Arts. Lots of beautiful, ornate pieces (mostly 1′s and some 2′s) – as you would expect, but a good number of useful items. This is the one that I saved in a folder.
    http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/chest-with-one-drawer-44436
    They also have a joint stool (that will look familiar to many of your readers):
    http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/joint-stool-44271
    I’ll admit – I thought it was kind of ugly at first.

  10. Please figure out some way to get this onto a T-Shirt. Quickly!
    Always a treat to read your latest.

  11. Rascal says:

    I’ve always thought that simplicity (of line and form) are the ultimate elegance, witness tansu, Shaker and similar forms. Louis XVI furniture leaves me cold. It’s just too gaudy and it looks cheap (to my eye) although it’s not. I do like ornamentation up to a point, just not so it interferes with the lines of the furniture and distracts the eye from the overall form.

    Love this post, Chris! Can’t wait for the book!

  12. Scott says:

    “…designed by the opportunistic to fill the temporary needs of the desperate.”

    Excellent description.

    • Peggy says:

      I immediately thought of college students and young adults with their first job and apartment!

      • Rascal says:

        LOL! My first apartment was furnished in Early American Orange Crate. Amazing what you can do with ‘em!

  13. David Pickett says:

    That’s highly perceptive, Chris – though as usual with putting anything into ‘boxes’, there’s probably a bit of fuzziness and blurring at the edges of the categories – some overlapping.

    Might be interesting to consider the historical context of each category, too. For example, categories 3 and 4 have always been around, category 1 for most of the time (but sometimes only for ruling elites as status symbols). Category 2 is the odd one – it only appears during times of peace and relative prosperity, to satisfy the ‘wannabees’ of society.

    If you’re the sort of person to read this blog, then it’s a fair bet that category 4 will resonate most strongly, but most of us probably own some category 3 out of necessity, and deeply respect the craftsmanship (if not always the aesthetics) of category 1. I’ll also lay long odds that most of us would cheerfully burn most category 2 stuff….or at least re-use the decent timber to make some decent cat. 4 stuff!

    By the way, I think Grinling Gibbons did mostly ecclesiastical and architectural ornament, not furniture. As delicate woodcarving goes, few have ever matched his artistry and technical accomplishment.

  14. Charles says:

    I particularly like the idea of work that the craftsperson made for his or her home, even if the maker understands the aesthetic value of tasteful ornament and is capable of achieving it in his work. I suppose an exception would be those who specialize in one aspect of the craft like carving, marquetry etc. I second the notion that the x /y axis is a great way to articulate the concept.

  15. Kevin says:

    I’m going to have my wife read this as it puts into words what I’ve had trouble with. Anymore all you see is laminated pine with “espresso” finish (looking at you, Pottery Barn) but not only does it not really look that great, its built like crap. I’ve tried to describe what I want to build and why me building it would be better, but I think the description “Furniture of Necessity” is spot on. And I have to have her read “A tale of three tables” from ATC (which, everyone should read even if they don’t build furniture). Like everything else, I cannot wait for this book.

  16. robert says:

    One could plot the “seriousness of purpose” along the x axis and the “successful execution” along the y axis, then take the area of the triangle created to determine the work’s inherent and long-term value. Or maybe that is too “Dead Poet’s Society.”

    • Rascal says:

      Oh, Fine! Just complicate the heck out of it! LOL :) You do have a good point though!

    • Sean says:

      Neither of those metrics is empirically determinable. Furniture is an amalgam of art and utility. Taste plays a large role. Taste is subjective.

  17. Tim A. says:

    Having made a trip to the orange box yesterday, I noticed that the store is filled with category 2 and 3 “furniture”. The good furniture is yet to me made and can be found amongst the lumber racks. A stack of boards that can be made into anything I desire.

  18. Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. says:

    To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

    If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

    A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

    “Understanding Poetry”
    Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.

    • robert says:

      Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!”

  19. Gil McNeill says:

    This breakdown is fantastic and really fits in with my mathematical mind. For the small shop or individual craftsman, I think it’s interesting to consider the “sweet spots” on the graph where tasteful/bomb-proof furniture pieces live. Stuff that looks great, made to last generations, and practical enough to build and sell in small batches to bring the costs down. Nice furniture for folks with moderate incomes.

  20. Matthew Dunne says:

    Great food for thought. I’m a little fuzy on the ornamentation axis. Why would Krenov be in quadrant I rather than IV? (There seems to be so little actual ornament in his work–it seems to be about form.) Is hand-made, expensive, Shaker-inspired furniture made today in I or IV? Put differently, is quadrant I really about ornamentation, or is it about status/price?

    • fitzpatm says:

      In Krenov’s case, I would argue that the exposed (and meticulous) joinery is ornamentation – I think it calls more attention to itself than the moulding used to cover 18th-c DTs.

      • lostartpress says:

        Sorry I meant to reply to this as well. Krenov’s work is covered in surface ornamentation, including hand-carved pulls. He also planed all surfaces to perfection, inside and out. While not as outrageous as rococo, it is there, it is distinct and it was time-consuming.

  21. Sean says:

    Where would “folk” furniture reside on this spectrum? Furniture hand made by someone capable, but naive (at least in comparison to Morris, Chippendale, etc.), approaching the task with sincerity and creating a personal result that is robust and pleasing, but also original in some aspect from ornamentation to design.

    • Paul B says:

      I like your definition of folk. I’ve been hunting around for ideas for an entertainment unit and really like the stuff at John Cornall Antiques. Great examples of “country” furniture. Something honest and touching about it.

      http://www.johncornallantiques.com/itemlist.asp?categoryid=9&categoryname=Dressers%2C+Dresser+Bases

      Chris’ categorization could apply to a few other things besides funiture. I’m thinking of animation… You can have highly polished Pixar gems, crappy but expensive looking late Disney stuff, simple but robust styings of early Popeye the Sailor, etc…

  22. mike siemsen says:

    A Z axis could be along the lines of the “Good, Better, Best” books by Sack. You could have 2 pieces of furniture that are basically alike on the X and Y axis and one could be superior in proportion and overall design.

  23. Rob says:

    ‘…the rich who have taste…’ Now there’s a minority group, if ever there was one!

  24. Carl says:

    ok Chris, I agree on some points.
    But how about art furniture, pieces intended only for their aesthetic appeal?
    And furniture built bomb proof, teeming with aesthetic design, but incredibly simple, lacking in ornamentation at all?
    Is carving what really denotes ornamentation?

  25. J says:

    I agree conceptually, and envision an X,Y coordinate scatter plot (with positive and negative values) for various pieces through time to compare along the “Schwarz scale.” However you might be envisioning solely attribute data (on/off or hi/med/low)

    Does faux finishing (graining or formica) increase it’s scale on the decoration axis or decrease it on the quality construction axis? What about nails? Exposed joinery? Does historical context have influence? You’ll need another axis to encompass “design.”

    Measuring design, construction quality, and even ornamentation would need pretty tight definitions to be useful beyond one person’s shifting opinion, especially when construction quality is intentionally a defining ornamentation.

  26. Bob DeViney says:

    Z axis for time, as there have likely been examples of all four categories throughout history, though we may not have extent examples from every era.

  27. mike says:

    Sadly, there are those of us who love making, but who are so limited in their time, skill set, and budget that we produce something akin to #2 despite our best intentions. I know I have a few things I made in my own house – bedside tables, a bookcase, my daughter’s cradle – that look great from a distance but on honest scrutiny are not so well made or made ok out of not so great wood. That said – I made these things because i needed them, but could not afford nice looking ones, or in the cradle’s case, just wanted to make something for my kid. So I read this post on the 2 axes agreeing with it in theory on the one hand, and feeling kind of lousy about what I personally produce on the other.

  28. Rascal says:

    I’m counting about 5 axes so far (that’s the plural of axis, not a multiplicity of hatchets!) Is there a theoretical physicist in the house? My graphing software just went tilt!

  29. Ben says:

    I can’t afford 1, I avoid 3, and don’t have the skills (yet anyway) to make 4, so I live in a world of 2. While I would like to thumb my nose at 2, I don’t have the time, the skills or the money to do so.

  30. Steve Barnhart says:

    Is that a shaker bench?

  31. ChrisF says:

    The purpose of the furniture should be considered as well. I saw some really nicely done bespoke hotel furniture where the legs and edges of a table were solid stained hardwood and the top was a really close formica match. It seemed like some thought had gone into its design. In it’s setting it is far more suitable than a varnished top that would need maintenance.

  32. troos says:

    I think the x, y, and even z axis analogy applies to all forms of design and fabrication, which makes Chris’ post universally profound. Look at any true iconoclast in any field of design, Andy Warhol, Milton Glaser, Rem Koolhaus, Jeff Koons, etc, all made their work without consideration of the categorizations that were placed on them, and they all have imitators and inspired pupils that occupy all realms of the newly coined Schwarz scale.

  33. Kirk Shufelt says:

    After reading your post, it seems there are really only two types of furniture. 1 & 4 are generational. 2 & 3 are destined for the landfill. Let’s hope we can inspire and educate makers and buyers to choose 1 & 4. Thanks, Kirk

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