Furniture in the Ancient World: Egypt

Pharaoh-Throne

Furniture History is a fascinating subject. Learning about furniture evolution gives you a vital understanding of how the craftsmanship of furniture began. The range of styles of furniture grew with the increased knowledge of the craftsmen as new materials and techniques became available, overseas trade and the economic conditions of the country. Furniture range was also dictated by the ruling monarch of the country and the conditions of the era. All those interesting facts about furniture will be described in a new rubric at FurnitureCart Blog.

The furniture of the Old Kingdom of Egypt (2700-2200 B.C.) was largely of stone, and little interest for us. Furniture was even less important in the Middle Kingdom. But for the time of New Kingdom (1570-1090 B.C.), there are many interesting examples of furniture, especially of armchairs, which are regarded as Egypt’s real contribution to furniture.

The furniture of the New Kingdom was small, beautifully designed, and highly ornamented. Carving and wood turning were used in making this furniture. Chairs and stools were often covered with cloth or skins, and the more elaborate ones were decorated with tooled leather. Tables were square, round, or oblong. They were supported either by a pedestal or by three legs. The pedestal or the legs were often carved to represent a bending human form, a symbol of the contempt in which the Egyptians held their slaves and captives. The tops of the tables sometimes had carved inscriptions telling of the owner’s talents or achievements. Emblems of Egyptian gods also appeared on much of the furniture. Some of the more elaborate furniture used in Egypt was made in ancient Ethiopia, where the art of inlay, or decorating by laying a design in the surface, is said to have originated. Ancient records show that this furniture was included in the tribute paid by the Ethiopians to Ramses II, the Egyptian King.

As symbols of strength and power, the Egyptians often carved the legs of their furniture to end in the hoofs of oxen, the pawns of lions, or the talons of hawks. Inlays and carvings were used a great deal, and the designs were patterns of leaves and flowers such as those of lotus, papyrus, date palm, and honeysuckle.  Religious symbols such as the sphinx, the scarab (sacred beetle), the serpent, and the hawk were often used. Color played an important part in all Egyptian decorations, especially red, black, yellow and blue.

Queen Hetep-heres owned the first truly elegant furniture that may be examined in detail: it has been reconstructed with confidence even though the original wood had disintegrated when the queen’s tomb was found by the expedition of Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ancient Egypt Hetepheres Chair

The finest of Egyptians chairs had been contributed to the burial of Tjuyu and Yuya by their granddaughter, Princess Sit-Amun, who, like her mother Teye, became a queen (and was probably the mother of Tut-ankh-Amun). Sit-Amun’s chair is unique in having portraits of Teye where one might have expected lion knobs. But her contemporaries must often have regarded that formidable lady with the respect usually reserved for a lioness with cubs -and here she is perhaps to be thought of as protecting her daughter.

Ancient Egypt Sitamun Chair

The woods commonly used for Egyptian furniture were cedar, cypress and ebony. Gold, silver and ivory inlays were used for decorations. Furniture pieces used for religious or state ceremonies were often ornamented with precious stones and brilliant enamels.

With help from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Images from Talaria Enterprises

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The Story of Furniture

Furniture History is a fascinating subject. Learning about furniture evolution gives you a vital understanding of how the craftsmanship of furniture began. From the earliest of times, man has invented things to make his life easier. The range of styles of furniture grew with the increased knowledge of the craftsmen as new materials and techniques became available, overseas trade and the economic conditions of the country. Furniture range was also dictated by the ruling monarch of the country and the conditions of the era. All those interesting facts about furniture will be described in a new rubric at FurnitureCart Blog.

The story of furniture is closely connected with the story of man. No one knows just when the first furniture was made. It probably came into being when primitive man found that his bed of leaves was more comfortable if he lifted it off the earth with sticks and logs. After the comfort and the usefulness of furniture were proven to him, primitive man began decorating his furniture with carvings, paintings, and inlaid patterns of various kinds. These decorations were not only for his own pleasure and the admiration of others, but also to glorify the gods he worshipped.

In the early civilizations, man spent a great deal of time and effort in creating and decorating his places of worship. He built altars on which he made sacrifices to his gods. From these raised altars he developed tables for his own use.

The growth of man’s ideas and interests can be traced throughout the history of furniture. In the decoration of Egyptian furniture, of which we have a clear record from about 4000 B. C., we find symbols of conquest and personal achievement.

Egyptian Antique FurnitureSource

In the ornamentation of Greek furniture, we see evidence of the Greek love of beautiful lines and regular form.

Greek Antique FurnSource

The conquering Romans borrowed and adapted furniture forms freely among the tribes and countries of their enemies.

Roman State ChairSource

Family life in the Early Middle Ages was perilous. There was little development of furniture forms. For nearly a thousand years, furniture was built only for the great Byzantine and Romanesque churches. During the Renaissance, the duties of a ruler toward his people and the rights of private property were recognized. Along with this new security for the family, a rich era in home furnishings developed. The talents and efforts of the greatest artists and craftsmen went into the making of Renaissance furniture. The beauty of the furniture of this period has never been excelled by craftsmen of modern times.

As the lot of the common man improved through political and economic changes, and also through discoveries and inventions, the refinements of home furnishings were developed as well. When England developed a more democratic form of government during the 1600’s and 1700’s, the furniture of those periods showed new ideas in beauty, comfort, and usefulness.

Changes in furniture styles are continuing along with changes in society. But in each new development of furniture form, there still linger traces of its heritage from the past. And in following the developments of various furniture forms of the Egyptians to the present day, a record is unfolded of man’s beliefs, needs, customs, and vanities.

To be continued…