Contemporary furniture design came about through the combination of enquiring, innovative minds, advances in technology and the ability to produce incredible furniture at more affordable prices. The industrial revolution also played a huge part in this, particularly in terms of cheaper materials, access to factory space and the ability to create artistic furniture pieces at a price more suited to the public at large.
From the late 19th century, designers started to look towards sleeker, simpler designs for modern furniture. Whereas in the past furniture had been constructed almost entirely from wood, resulting in heavy overstated pieces indicative of grandeur and luxury. This access to new materials and different ways of working allowed designers to make more compact and modest sized items. These new furniture designs were easier to incorporate within any required living space and also gave the purchaser an opportunity to buy items that were an expression of their own personal tastes, with less limitations. Contemporary furniture design became known for being serviceable and functional but with a creative slant that saw modern furniture often viewed as pieces of art in their own right.
Odd angles, clean lines, curved shaping and materials such as metal and moulded plastic paved the way for modern furniture to infiltrate into our consciousness. It’s hard to ignore the striking designs of contemporary furniture pieces – the fluidity and sharpness often used in these designs made people really start to sit up and take notice of modern furniture.
Many designers of modern and contemporary furniture are also noted for being incredible architects – contemporary furniture is really about functional items being seen as architectural and artistic designs. Architects such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright and even Antoni Gaudi started to incorporate contemporary furniture design into their overall architectural visions. Gaudi would often design furniture pieces to complement the interesting nuances of his buildings, creating a harmony between the external structure and internal decoration.
Other notable contributors to the contemporary furniture movement include Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier and Lilly Reich. Mies van der Rohe invented the now famous and often copied ‘Barcelona chair’ and his contemporary furniture often used cantilevers to enable supportive yet delicate framework, often created out of chrome. Mies worked in collaboration with Lilly Reich for over a decade, sharing both a professional and personal relationship. In addition to her involvement in the design of the Barcelona chair, the couple also worked together to create the Brno chair, another iconic piece of modern furniture that continues to be cited as both inspirational and aspirational.
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