EUROPE BY NET’S GUIDE TO FURNITURE AND INTERIOR DESIGN TERMINOLOGY
Have you ever been puzzled by the way something has been described, or wanted to know what a certain feature on a piece of furniture was called?
Here is a quick cross-reference guide to furniture terminology:
Acanthus Leaf: A curvy leaf shape often carved in wood also found in floral designs by William Morris, popular in eighteenth century design.
Acrylic: A synthetic fibre or paint.
Adam, Robert: An English furniture designer in the sixteenth century. An exponent of the neoclassical style.
Alabaster: A white translucent stone.
American Colonial Style: 1630-1700. Furniture that drew its inspiration from its mother countries. Simple country furniture with decorative carving often enhanced by painting.
American Furniture: 1700-1760. During the first half of the 1700’s America continued to follow European patterns. While rococo was in full swing in much of Europe, Anglo-Dutch style prevailed in America. Simplified versions of the Queen Anne details appeared on furniture and so too other styles but in a more diluted form.
Antique: A genuine object of an earlier period, valued for its beauty, workmanship or age.
Armoire: French term for wardrobe. A description of a French style wardrobe with curved, wooden detail.
Art Deco: An artistic style dating from the 1920’s. It had a strong geometric style, with simple forms, a move away from the patterned, floral art nouveau style. Strikingly modern for its time.
Atrium: A central hall extending through several stories of a modern house.
Back splat: The back section of a chair that is sometimes pierced or detailed.
Ball and Claw Foot: A carved chair or table foot that resembles an eagle or a lion’s claw covering a ball. Can be carved out of wood or cast in iron or brass.
Balloon back: A wooden chair back in the shape of a balloon. Popular in Victorian dining room furniture.
Barleytwist: A wooden detail on furniture, created by turning. The end result is a spiral or twisted effect. Often used as a support on Victorian and Edwardian furniture.
Beading: A decorative edging in wood, usually resembling a row of flattened beads.
Bentwood Chair: A chair made from wood steamed and bent into shape. Some examples are the curvy, Paris cafe chair or the rustic Windsor chair. A modern example is the Scandinavian chairs made from a single piece of wood.
Bergere: A French partially upholstered armchair or sofa, that has the sides, and or, back frame exposed. Often this is made of rattan or woven cane.
Blanket Box: A traditional storage box for linen, often placed at the end of the bed.
Bonheur du Jour: A French ladies writing desk, dating from the eighteenth century. These would be delicate in design and prettily inlaid, often with a glaze fronted cabinet on the top.
Bow Front: When the front section of a wooden piece of furniture bows outwards. Usually a detail in Edwardian chest of drawers.
Bun foot: A foot in the shape of a flattened ball used on chest of drawers or upholstered furniture. Often only the front feet were bun shaped, the rear feet being plain.
Burr Veneer: A veneer cut from the burred part of a tree that is gnarled and knotty. This when cut in cross sections gives a wavy and marked pattern.
Bureau: A desk built on the top of a set of chest of drawers. The desk is revealed when a flap is lowered.
Buttonback: A Victorian upholstered chair that has a series of buttons giving detail to the back of the chair.
Cabinet: A name given to a piece of furniture used for storage.
Cabriole leg: The front leg of a table, chair or cabinet that has an “S” shaped curve often terminating at a ball and claw foot. Some times referred to as a “Queen Anne” leg and a hallmark of Chippendale furniture.
Captain’s Chair: A wooden armchair with a swivel base and often on casters, usually upholstered in leather.
Caustic Tile: A ceramic tile used in Victorian hallways, often tessellated and usually brown and cream. The name is derived from the manufacturing method.
Chaise Lounge: An upholstered settee or daybed, that has one arm rest and a back that tapers down to the end of the settee.
Chesterfield: A leather sofa with deep-buttoned upholstery and high back and arms.
Chest of Drawers: A wooden piece of furniture that is made up of many drawers and is used for storage.
Chinoiserie: Lacquered or painted furniture drawing its influences from Chinese art. The most popular look is black lacquer with gold figurative painting.
Chipboard: A low quality wood substitute consisting of wooden particles bonded together. Often used as a backing or frame where it is not seen. Sometimes used as a backing for veneers.
Chippendale, Thomas: Chippendale has often been accused of being a plagiarist and overrated, but he was responsible for bringing about the birth of a uniquely English style. Admittedly his furniture owes much to earlier rococo and Queen Anne style, but he has an unmistakable individual feel. He was the first English cabinetmaker to publish a pattern book. Good examples of his work are chairs with carved cabriole legs, ending in a ball and claw foot.
Credenza: A sideboard, sometimes with glazed doors and ornate inlaid wood.
Damask: A fabric with a pattern woven into it used for furnishing.
Daybed: Narrower than a normal bed, a daybed sometimes has a back or side to lean against.
Divan: A backless sofa or couch, or a low bed without a headboard.
Dowel: A wooden pin the size of a pencil, used to hold two pieces of wood together.
Dresser: A sideboard, usually containing cupboards, or storage space with shelving fitted on top for displaying china. Often this shelving is a separate piece, fitting together with dowels or slots.
Dressing table: A piece of bedroom furniture consisting of a table surface with drawers below and can have a mirror attached to the table. Some have knee holes allowing better access for sitting close to the mirror.
Drop Front: The flap or front of a bureau which when lowered reveals a writing desk surface. This is sometimes decorated with inlaid wood or marquetry.
Drop Leaf: A table that has hinged leaves that can be lowered to save space. The tabletop, when extended, is held in place by either a sliding block or a gate leg.
Early Georgian Period: 1714-1740. Furniture from this period was fairly restrained, although embellishments began to appear in the form of carving and decoration. Mahogany began to be introduced in the 1730’s, replacing walnut. The fashion for tea drinking brought about new styles of furniture, the tripod and the folding-top tea table and the drop-leafed table.
Early Victorian Period: 1840-1860. New machine made tools changed furniture making from an art to an industry. Although the Victorian style is easy to recognise the period has no overall distinctive look. Many ideas were based on retrospective and romantic revivals. Examples are Empire and Regency, Gothic and Jacobean. Innovations were inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Ebonizing: A technique that dates back to the sixteenth Century. Cheaper varieties of wood were stained and polished to look like ebony. Popular in Edwardian times. Sometimes called shellac.
Ebony: Highly prized cabinet wood. Dense black colour and extremely heavy.
Edwardian Period: 1901-1910. Furniture was becoming smaller and simpler as a reaction against Victorian opulence. Makers like Sheraton and Hepplewhite set the tone. Soft woods were used more often and finished with a stain or lacquer.
Elm: Used in English country furniture. Has a close fibrous grain, ideal for chairs and seats.
Empire Style: 1800-1815. A phase of Neoclassicism involving obvious plagiarism from the ancient world of Rome, Greece and Egypt. A more academic approach to design was taken based on archeological finds at the time. The result was new modern art form.
Etagere: A freestanding open cabinet having several shelves for display.
Faux: French for “fake”. A term used to describe something that seems to be but is not. This a pretend detail or effect, such as book spines used to create a library effect or fake animal skin.
Fiddleback: A back splat of a chair that is in the shape of a violin. Often found in Windsor chairs.
Finial: A decorative way to finish the end of a tall upright element of a piece of furniture. These are usually turned or carved ornaments in the shape of urns, orbs or pineapples. Frequently used on cabinet tops, bed posts or stair newel posts. Finials are also used in architecture to finish off an apex.
Flat Packed: Another term for self assembly furniture, where the furniture is put together by the purchaser.
Foil: A veneer made from paper that has a wood grain applied to it.
Four Poster: A bed which has a post at each corner, often supporting a canopy and curtains.
French Directoire Period: 1795-1800. This period bridges the grandeur of Louis XVI and the more dignified Empire style. The ornamentation is simplified and there is more use of unadorned wood.
French Polish: A shellac varnish for wood that has a high lustre. Sometimes called button polish.
Fretwork: A decorative feature created by cutting or carving an ornamental pattern out of a piece of wood. Used to add detail to chair backs and cabinet doors.
Fumed Oak Furniture: A method used in the 1920’s and 1930’s to stain oak to a deep golden colour. The wood was exposed to the fumes of ammonia until the desired colour was achieved.
Futon: A Japanese style bed consisting of a soft mattress and a base of wooden slats that can fold away to create more space. Some futons fold into a sofa.
Gallery Rail: A delicate rail that run along the top edge of a bureau or credenza.
Gateleg Table: This is a drop-leaf table that has extra support for the leaves by using additional legs that swing out from either side, like a gate. These legs are often turned or detailed.
Gesso: (Pronounced “jesso”). An element of finish given to wood made from mixing size (glue) and chalk together. It is used in the gilding process, providing the base for gold leaf and paint.
Gilding: The laying on of gold leaf onto a wooden surface.
Gold Leaf: Gold leaf is pure gold beaten into a thin foil, which is then used to decorate wood or metal.
Grain: Wood grain reflects the character and the growth rings in a tree. Each year the tree puts on a new layer of wood. This can be seen on the face of a plank as a series of parallel lines and on the end of a plank as a series of concentric rings. Furniture makers use the unique graining of wood as patination for their work.
Hepplewhite, George: Late 1700. George Hepplewhite’s furniture was largely influenced by Robert Adam’s neoclassical style. Hepplewhite’s furniture was designed for the less affluent market. Although drawing from neoclassical concepts, his furniture is lightened by using flowing forms of rococo. Characteristic examples of Hepplewhite furniture are lightly constructed pieces, using pale woods with exotic wood inlays and having tapering square legs for chairs and cabinets. The backs of the chairs often had a shield motif.
Highboy: A chest of drawers that sits on a stand. The stand is made up of two or three larger drawers with decorative legs. A popular piece of furniture from the Queen Anne period.
Inlay: Strips and small pieces of exotic and colourful woods set into solid-wood background to give ornamentation and pattern. This form of decoration has been used widely in European furniture since the sixteenth century.
Jacobean Style: A loose term used to cover furniture style in England and the colonies throughout the main part of the seventeenth century. Most pieces of English furniture were made from oak and were square and heavy in construction. The designs were utilitarian and any decoration was usually in the form of shallow carving.
Japanning: The imitation of a black oriental lacquer, made from tree sap. It was a technique used in America and Europe to recreate Japanese style furniture. Shellac replaced the traditional lacquer. Often furniture was decorated further with oriental images in gold leaf or bronze.
Knock Down Furniture: Another term for flat packed furniture or self-assembly.
Key Hole: A space beneath a desk or dressing table designed to accommodate a person’s legs while sitting at the desk or table.
Lacquer: A clear cellulose varnish that is applied in layers to protect the surface of furniture.
Ladder Back: A style of rustic or country chair that has horizontal slats, that look like the rungs of a ladder, that forms the back support of the chair.
Late Victorian Period: 1860-1900. Furniture in this period became extremely elaborate and the use of inlay and gilding was popular. The making of furniture was no longer a craft but an industry. The extensive use of cabinet woods like mahogany, rosewood and walnut was discontinued and oak came back into fashion. Papier-mache became common and cheap woods were stained to resemble more expensive ones. There were some exceptions like the Arts and Crafts movement (1870-1914).
Linen Press: A cabinet traditionally used for storing household linen or clothes. This is usually found in the form of a cupboard containing shelves that sits on a chest of drawers.
Long Case Clock: A clock built into the top of a tall wooden case, housing the pendulum and weight mechanism. Sometimes called a Grandfather clock.
Louis XV Style: 1723-1774. Louis XV style is a generic term for furniture design which is synonymous with rococo, sweeping elegant curves, fancy decoration and asymmetric pattern. One of the most characteristic pieces of Louis XV is the upholstered chair with ornately gilded decoration on the frame and legs.
Louis XVI: 1774-1793. This period was the first phase of neoclassicism. The rococo style was considered frivolous and this new style of furniture was modelled on an idealistic view of ancient Rome and classical forms. Curves were replaced by square shapes and the cabriole leg was replaced by the straight, tapered leg, usually in the manner of a column. Apart from brass mounts and carvings the surface was flat and any marquetry was geometrical.
Love Seat: A two seat sofa that is in the shape of an “S”. The sitters sit side-by-side but face the opposite direction so they can look at each other. Also used to refer to any small two seat sofa.
Lowboy: A small table with drawers, often with cabriole legs.
Mahogany: This is a richly grained hard wood and has been used in cabinet making for more than 250 years. It was used in its solid form rather than a veneer.
Maple: A pail, finely grained wood with the colour of honey. It has associations with Scandinavia and America where it is widely used for furniture. A popular wood for flooring because of its strong yet light qualities.
Marquetry: The difference between marquetry and inlay is that marquetry consists of hundreds of pieces of wooden veneer laid onto pine or oak and covers the entire surface: none of the background is visible. Motifs vary from geometric designs to intricate floral decoration.
MDF: Medium density fibre board. This consists of wood fibres bonded together by resin. It is used in modern furniture and is strong and easy to use.
Mitre: A method of joining two pieces of bevelled wood together to meet at right angles. Often used in picture framing.
Modern Style: 1920-Onwards. Conceived by the modern movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, avant-garde designers used unconventional materials like tubular steel and moulded laminates to enhance their use of angles and curves. Individual designers and craftsman have since upheld the importance of design in mass-production.
Modular: Furniture that is made in units so they can be arranged in different configurations.
Moulding: Decorative strips of wood in relief applied to furniture to emphasis a detail or add character.
Motif: A decorative theme or subject that runs through the whole design.
Neoclassical Style: The first phase of this style originates in the late eighteenth century as a reaction against flowery rococo furniture. The second phase was in the early nineteenth century with the introduction of Empire style. In both instances designs were drawn from classical forms from ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece.
Oak: This is a strong, durable wood that has been extensively used in country furniture. Its colour can vary from yellow to dark brown and can age to silvery white. It was very popular in Victorian furniture and was often limed when used in architecture.
Occasional Furniture: A generic term for small portable pieces of furniture, such as side tables, coffee tables and magazine racks.
Oriental lacquer: A traditional finish for wood perfected in Japan centuries ago. It is a complicated process of refining tree resin. Once the layers of black sticky sap have cured, the end result is a strong yet flexible protection, which can then be decorated.
Ottoman: A bench with an upholstered seat, which when lifted reveals storage space for linen.
Papier-Mache: (Pronounced “paper mashay”). A decorative technique of creating a wood substitute by applying successive layers of paper over a mould and bonding it with glue or size. Once the surface is dry it can be removed from the mould having taken on its shape. Layers of varnish or lacquer are applied to strengthen and protect it. It can then be decorated. Popular medium for oriental furniture.
Parquetry: Wood inlay for furniture decoration using small geometric pieces of wood laid in a design similar to parquet flooring.
Patina: The natural decoration of a surface caused by the nature of the material itself and the marks of usage gathered over time. An example of this is fine wood graining found in wood like Bird’s eye maple or oak.
Pedestal table: A table with a surface that is supported by a central column or leg. Some tabletops can be tilted vertically for storage.
Pediment: An architectural feature above a door or tall piece of furniture. This compliments the detailing and finishes the design.
Pembroke Table: A small rectangular table that often has a drop leaf and a small drawer at one end.
Pier Mirror: A tall mirror designed to hang over a pier table. These often have ornate, gilded surrounds in the rococo asymmetric style.
Pier Table: A semi-circular table designed to stand against the wall. Often found in a hallway. Some have marble tops on wooden or gilded base. Frequently made in pairs.
Pilaster: A column feature often found in neoclassical designs.
Plinth: A solid base used as a support for a piece of furniture or to display a piece of sculpture.
Plywood: A wood substitute made by bonding several layers of thin wood together. Its strength is achieved by altering the direction of wood grain in each layer. Used as a base for veneers and modern furniture frames.
Pouf: A low upholstered stool for resting feet on.
Queen Anne Period: 1702-1714. There was a strong emphasis of English style in this period, which resulted in some fine examples of cabinet making. Queen Anne furniture tended to be well balanced and simply decorated allowing the natural beauty of the wood to speak for itself. The cabriole leg and ball and claw foot were the signature of the time, often being called a Queen Anne leg.
Refectory Table: A long rectangular dinning table with a solid wooden top and sturdy legs joined by stretchers.
Regency period: 1811-1820. Named after the Prince Regent, these dates mark the Regency period in England, but as a style the dates begin around 1795 and go on to 1825. One of the key designers was Thomas Sheraton. Regency furniture was simple and elegant. Most pieces were veneered apart from chairs and some dining tables. Decoration was limited to turning and brass inlay in grounds of rosewood and other exotic woods.
Relief: A carved decoration that stands proud of the surface.
Reproduction: This is new furniture that is made in the style of, or a copy of an antique style. The materials used are usually of an inferior quality and then stained to look like mahogany or cherry. The Victorians were the main instigators of reproduction furniture.
Restoration: Work carried out on furniture to restore it to its original condition. Another meaning of Restoration is the English Restoration period, 1660-1689. A time of change in England after the restoration of the monarchy and the loss of furniture in the great fire of London, helped to bring about a refreshing change in style and design.
Rococo: A style of furniture detailing with origins in France dating from the1720’s. its characteristics were floral, curvy and over the top carving which was often gilded with gold leaf. The overall look was asymmetric with natural, organic forms.
Roll Top Desk: A desk with a tambour cover which rolls back to reveal the writing surface.
Runner: A rail used to support additional leaves on an extending dining table.
Rush Seated Chair: A chair where the seat area is made of woven rushes. Popular in country furniture since the seventeenth century. Lengths of rush are twisted together then passed around the frame of the chair in a logical pattern.
Rustic Chair: A generic term for country furniture. Simple, honest and utilitarian. Examples are Shaker furniture, Windsor chair and Arts and Crafts furniture.
Sabre Leg: A chair or cabinet leg that has a gentle curve that resembles the shape of a sword.
Secretaire: A sideboard with false drawers which drop forward to reveal a desk and writing surface.
Self Assembly: Furniture that comes flat packed; its components are put together after purchase.
Serpentine Front: A way of describing the front surface of furniture that is curved in an “S” shape.
Serving Table: A long narrow table with drawers that stands against the wall and is used as a servery.
Settee: Another name for a sofa.
Shaker Furniture: 1770-1800. Shaker furniture is a unique and isolated pocket of furniture design. The term originates from an English religious sect that went to America in 1774, settling in New England, Kentucky and Indiana. Their simple and utilitarian way of life is reflected in their furniture. Shapes are kept simple and basic with little to no decoration. This form of design was way ahead of its time and many modern designs draw inspiration from it. The originators of “form and function”.
Shellac: A varnish or polish finish for wood that protects and strengthens. A base for lacquer.
Sheraton, Thomas: A furniture designer in the late 1700’s. His style is associated with square backed chairs, large areas of wood bordered with stringing and banding and very slender tapering legs.
Shield back chair: A chair in the Hepplewhite style having a back in the shape of a shield.
Sideboard: A long cabinet that is used for storage. The flat surface is used for serving food from. Smarter versions are called Credenzas.
Slat: A thin flat section of wood. Some examples are sections of wood used in ladder back chairs or a method of supporting the mattress in a bed base.
Sleigh Bed: A popular French Empire style bed that has a high scrolled headboard and footboard. This gives the bed the look of a sleigh or a boat. It is also sometimes called a “bateau lit”.
Spindle: A cylindrical piece of wood that has been turned on a lathe. Detail in the form of ridges can be made at this point. Spindles can then be used to strengthen and add detail to the back of a chair or as stair banisters.
Splat: A flat, vertical piece of wood found in the centre of a chair back. These can often be carved or pierced.
Stretcher: A horizontal arrangement of rails or spindals used to connect the legs of tables and chairs together. This gives the furniture stability and structural strength.
Stringing: Complicated arrangements of inlaid strips of wood found at the edges of antique tables and cabinets. The result is a border with a string like effect.
Tambour Door: A flexible door made up of strips of wood joined together to allow the surface to roll away, concealing the door completely. An example is the shutter door of a bureau.
Tilt Top Table: A small, often round table with a hinged top. This can be pivoted vertically to store neatly when not in use.
Tortoise Shell: Real tortoise shell is no longer used as decoration, but the term now refers to the effect. This is a mottled brown, orange and black pattern sometimes occurring naturally in wood grain or recreated using stains.
Trestle Table: A simple rectangular table with a top supported by a set of swing-out legs at either end. These tables are often erected for temporary use and can be stored flat.
Tripod Tables: This is similar to a pedestal table, having one stem. It gets its name from the three-leg “tripod” arrangement at the base.
Trompe L’oeil: (Pronounced “tromp loi”.) Literally, French for “trick of the eye”. This is the use of paint effects to create the illusion of a three dimensional object or view.
Turning: A cylindrical piece of wood created by shaping it on a rotating device called a lathe. Decoration can be achieved by tapering the wood and making ridges. These turned pieces of wood are then used as table legs, rails, spindles and banisters.
Upholstery: The fabric covering for furniture.
Uprights: The vertical detail providing structure or ornamentation. Examples are the vertical section of a chair back or open sides of a cabinet.
Varnish: A protective coating given to wood to make it water resistant and to bring out the colour and pattern of the grain.
Veneer: A thin layer of wood cut from a section of a tree to maximise the natural beauty of the wood grain. The veneer is then glued on to a solid backing, usually an inferior wood, and made into furniture.
Victorian: See Early and Late Victorian.
Vitrine: A French term for a display cabinet, often with glazed doors.
Wardrobe: A cupboard providing hanging space for clothes, sometimes with a drawer at the base.
Welsh Dresser: An early form of a dresser originating from the Welsh valleys. These rustic pieces of farmhouse furniture were often made of oak or pine.
Wheat Ear: A decorative motif, usually carved in wood, that resembles an ear of wheat.
Wheat Sheaf or Wheat Back: The detailing on a chair back that resembles a bundle of wheat. This is most commonly found in rustic furniture like the Sussex chair, where simple wooden strips that form the back support are gathered together and look like a wheat sheaf.
Wicker Furniture: Furniture using the same materials and techniques as basket making. Willow or cane is woven around a criss-cross frame to create the structure and shape. This kind of furniture is often used in the garden or conservatory.
William and Mary Period: 1689-1702. The furniture from this period was slightly heavy and thick set, using wood like walnut and oak. The lines were simple and detailing was provided by marquetry and turning. Tables, chests on stands and chair legs often had barley twist legs with scrolled ends to feet and arm rests.
Windsor Chair: A generic term for a country chair that has a solid seat and a back formed from a bent wood hoop and vertical spindles. This kind of chair was popular in the eighteenth century, although the Windsor chair is a perfect example of how the simple stool has evolved into a chair over the centuries. It also represented the divide between furniture made by rural craftsmen and the refinement of urban cabinetmakers.