Review by Gerald W. R. Ward
History of Furniture: Twenty-Five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition

John Morley. The History of Furniture: Twenty-Five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., A Bulfinch Press Book, 1999. 352 pp.; 173 color and 507 bw illus., bibliography, index. $75.00.

In an age when furniture scholarship is becoming ever more specialized, it is refreshing to see an author attempt to survey twenty-five centuries of Western style and design in a single volume, as John Morley does in The History of Furniture. Morley takes on the history of ornament from ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian times through, basically, the middle of the nineteenth century. The main focus of the work is on objects made before about 1850. However, two chapters at the end of the book deal with “The Wilder Shore of Style,” by which the author means the influence of China, Japan, India, Egypt, and Africa, and “Latter-day Polarities,” a reference to the dichotomy between art nouveau and twentieth-century neoclassicism.

Large in format and beautifully illustrated with a wide variety of images, The History of Furniture represents one of the few large-scale, serious overviews of furniture since the publication in 1965 of World Furniture, edited by Helena Hayward. Although Morley’s new book does not entirely supplant the Hayward anthology, which has a different format and focus, it goes far beyond the less satisfactory 1992 work by H. D. Molesworth and John Kenworthy-Brown entitled Three Centuries of Furniture in Color (an English text written to go with illustrations first published in 1969 in Alvar Gonzalez Palacios, Il Mobile nei Secoli) and the more general History of Furniture, edited by Anne Charlish and published in 1976.

The History of Furniture identifies “classical” and “anti-classical” modes in ancient work and explores how “the antithesis between these two main antique schools . . . profoundly influenced interior decoration and furniture design during the centuries that followed the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance” (p. 9). The influences of the “pointed styles”—Islamic and Gothic—are also considered as part of the backdrop against which furniture styles and designs have evolved. The origins and evolution of ornaments and motifs are examined in detail.

This is very much a book by a traditional art historian written for other traditional art historians. Its text is wide-ranging, learned, perceptive, and elegantly written, with bountiful quotations from period sources in literature, history, and the arts. Morley makes no bones about confining his focus to tracing the complicated story of motifs and sources of influence, and he is almost exclusively interested in high-style furniture. His approach is thus both traditional and, to my mind, somewhat old-school English, reminiscent, for example, of the tone of early issues of Furniture History. Morley is primarily concerned with the outer envelope of the object rather than with its construction, and he is unapologetic about his lack of interest in what he calls “licenza in exposition” (p. 7), or what some people might call social and cultural interpretation. He is not particularly interested in vernacular or rural furniture, or in the new literature on consumerism, or in furniture as evidence of material culture, or in many of the other avenues that furniture historians, especially those in America, now like to wander down. Within the parameters he has chosen to define the history of furniture, however, Morley does an excellent job of unraveling the complicated story of why furniture looks the way it does. Hereafter no one will be able to say simply that such-and-such an object was “influenced by” or “inspired by” an earlier piece without bringing to mind the subtle, intricate web of relationships that Morley has so deftly woven.

American furniture is discussed here and there in the volume, with, for instance, a Salem blockfront desk-and-bookcase on p. 157, a Meeks desk-and-bookcase (ca. 1825) on p. 217, a Belter bed on p. 253, and an arts and crafts interior on p. 249. The only concentrated section on American work is devoted to classics of twentieth-century seating (pp. 273–74). Thus students of American work will find this book of greatest use as a means for placing high-style American furniture in an international, largely Euro-centric, context.

The bibliography included in The History of Furniture deserves a special word of mention. Rather than being a compilation of the vast secondary literature, Morley has assembled three useful lists of primary sources. The first includes books containing antique, exotic, and Gothic sources of design, while the second cites pattern and ornament books. The last group includes a shorter list of works that have influenced taste or ideas. Again, works published in America are not included to any significant degree, but overall the bibliography is a useful reference that will be of value to students.

Even if Morley has not told the entire history of furniture, The History of Furniture is a major contribution to our understanding of the evolution of taste and of design. It seems destined to become a cornerstone in any library on furniture, American and otherwise.

Gerald W. R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2000