Furniture Periods: The Origin of Styles – Furniture Facts

Many consumers in search of fine furniture today are interested in specific styles, but cannot find a simple guide to those types of furniture that appeal to them. The purpose of this paper, then, is to assist the buyer in acquiring a knowledge of the types of furniture on the market.

Style Versus Period.

Two of the many terms consumers are consistently faced with as they apply to furniture are “style” and “period”. They hear these words bandied about by decorators, and read articles in the various home journals using the words to describe various pieces in stories covering home furnishings. Do they mean the same thing, or are they different? Different.

1. Style. Style refers to a particular type of furniture made by one or more manufacturers or “invented” by a designer, in which pieces share common characteristics in appearance or construction.

2. Period. The term “period” is used to denote pieces made at the time a specific style was FIRST produced.

Example: “Sheraton” is a style originated by William Sheraton and produced from about 1770 to 1820. While many pieces manufactured since that time have been produced in the Sheraton style, those actually made between 1770-1820 are considered period pieces.

New Versus Old.

Other terms associated with furniture periods and styles include antique and reproduction. Basically referring to old and new, respectively, when does one end and the other begin?

1. Antique. The term “antique” is commonly used to refer to old pieces. Antique purists identify true antiques as being 100 years of age or older. While not a figure ‘cast in stone’, the U.S. government uses this 100-year mark itself, identifying anything over 100 years of age to be an antique and exempt from duty and tariff taxes for importing purposes.

2. Vintage. Given the use of the term antique to define pieces over 100 years of age, another term is needed for those things which are old but not yet 100 years old. Thus, those in the trade use the term “vintage”. As it applies to furniture, the term is normally associated with those pieces less than 100 years old but manufactured prior to about 1965. This benchmark is typically used because manufacturers began using compressed particle board as the secondary wood around that time. Thus, ‘vintage’ is typically associated with pieces made of solid woods and veneers.

3. Used. To distinguish between pieces made before about 1965 from those manufactured after this “landmark” period, ‘used’ is sometimes utilized (but not always/by everyone) to denote those items made since that time.

4. Reproduction. While it may be legitimately stated that ANY piece made in a particular style that is NOT a period piece is a reproduction, the term “reproduction” is normally only used to refer to furniture which is new.

5. Bench Made. The term “bench made” is used to identify those furniture pieces which were made by a craftsman, versus those manufactured by a furniture company on an assembly line. Such distinctions can sometimes become blurred, as in smaller furniture companies individual pieces were typically not manufactured on an assembly line, but rather handcrafted by artisans and journeymen under the supervision of a master craftsman.

6. Custom. At one time, the term “custom” furniture was typically applied to bench made pieces which were made for specific clients. However in recent years, the term has been extensively utilized by the trade to refer to reproduction pieces made overseas.

The Periods.

Given the above definitions, the following chart identifies the periods in which common styles of furniture manifested themselves in the modern world.