European and North American Furniture Style History

As we’ve discussed recently here on the BuildDirect Blog, furniture is often something we take for granted. But, each piece has a storied history. A lot of the time, that history depends on where you are. But lately in this 21st century of ours, even some of those divisions have shifted. Here to talk about some of those histories in Europe and in North America too, here’s furniture design enthusiast and writer Sally Hall on the rich traditions of furniture design.


Although in the past European and North American styles of furniture might have been seen to  follow the division of their cultures, today this cannot be said to be the case. Traditionally, pre-modern or period furniture tended to be Classical or Romantic in design, reflecting the history of where it came from.

So seventeenth century Classical furniture was typically Baroque, grand and with symmetrical lines, while eighteenth century Romantic furniture was more Rococo, expressing energy and was more curvaceous. However since the last century, modern designs from both sides of the ocean have fused to become globally accepted.

European furniture styles

Traditional Living Room by Other Metro Media And Blogs Kasey Buick

In France, from the late 18th century and through most of the nineteenth century designers looked back to the classical Greek and Roman styles. This is seen in the furniture of Louis XVI, the Directoire, the Empire, Restoration and time of Louis Philippe. In contrast, as well as styles more suited for the palace or grand chateaux, there has always been a long tradition of good solid, rustic and traditional furniture in France, harking to its rural roots.

With Italy being the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is hardly surprising that the style of furniture draws heavily from this heritage and it has influenced furniture design across the world.

Germany is still the third largest manufacturer of furniture in the world and this gives credibility to the popularity of German contemporary designs, especially from the early 20th century and the Bauhaus furniture movement.

However, until the twentieth century, furniture was designed as much to be ornamental as to serve a function. This changed as the emphasis shifted to functionality and accessibility.

Modernism and furniture design in Europe

The modernist movement set its sights on technical innovation, originality and a newness that no longer held on to the past.  Modernist design evolved from a combination of influences. New materials and manufacturing methods were used. A combination of the emergence of new philosophies from the Werkbund and the Bauhaus School, exciting and exotic foreign influences, Art Nouveau and the creativity of artists and designers led to new styles and designs.

Particularly of note have been the furniture designs from Scandinavia. Here the overwhelming theme is a neoclassicism in its most advanced stage. The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition and World’s Fair in New York in 1939 did a lot to promote Scandinavian style furniture with its clean and simple, light-weight designs.  During the 1960s and 70s, the Danish Modern Movement took off emphasizing organic flows and natural materials.

Popular types of Scandinavian furniture include Scandinavian platform beds and other bedroom furniture, leather recliner chairs, contemporary coffee tables and Scandinavian teak furniture. IKEA has popularized the sleek lines of Scandinavian design that use metal and wood to stylish effect that are have been adopted around the world.

North American furniture styles

An interesting combination of old and new, there’s a mélange of experimentation and fusions from many directions. The original Shaker settlers brought with them a rustic functionality. Everything in the home had to have a practical use and decoration was not seen to be important. ‘Beauty rests on utility’ was one of their catch-phrases. Furniture was made to painstakingly high standards of quality however. Similarly, the ‘Pennsylvanian’ style of furniture was a simple and utilitarian design with German origins, typified by colourful folk art painting.

However, later the American mass market and family home dictated more economic brand named styles of furniture. The brash and bold are seen as hallmarks of American styles. Described as ‘Mid-Century Modern,’ ‘Modern’ or ‘Contemporary’, this style became popular in North America during the 1950s and 60s.

Open plan was the thing, with furniture lines being straight or curved, to evoke the idea of spaceships and flying.  Now referred to as ‘retro’, large sectional settees would be covered with nubby tweed fabrics. The Modern style focuses on clean lines and function.

Though there might have been divisions along the lines of the split of the New from the Old World during the nineteenth century, this has become much more blurred. In particular, since the 1990s, furniture design is becoming more personalized with ‘Casual Contemporary’ becoming the buzz-word. This draws on modern Danish styles at the same time as traditional Shaker designs, marrying the two to produce popular and functional designs.


Author BIO: Sally Hall, marketing manager and client communication specialist at BoConcept, the Danish contemporary sofa manufacturers. Sally follows new furniture trends and makes sure that client’s get the style that fits their home the best at a reasonable price.

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