Design School – The Furniture of Ancient Egypt

You may recall my excitement about restarting in the Residential Decor Program at Algonquin College.  Well, I am back at it, and enjoying every minute.  There is most definitely something to be said for this notion of life-long learning, and for being truly engaged in what it is that you what you want to know!

Whenever possible grownups should go back to school.  Honest.

Anyway, the History of Furniture course has been quite an eye-opener, and I can safely say that my fascination with furniture has been fuelled.  I’ve had whole lot of homework though and it’s been really, really busy lately.  So – in the interest of time, I’ve combined efforts.  As I go, I hope share a few highlights from what I’ve learned….

Furniture in Ancient Egypt – 4000 B.C. – 300 B.C.

The ancient Egyptians were a culture obsessed with the afterlife.  It is because of this, and the very dry climate in the region, that we have come to understand as much about Egyptian furniture as we do.  With limitless budgets, wealthy Egyptians commissioned ornate handcrafted pieces to accompany them in death. The process of mummification successfully preserved a significant number of highly refined wooden pieces that can still be studied today, and these are an extraordinary compliment to information derived from remaining sculptures, paintings and papyrus writings.

While ordinary citizens of Egypt were surviving with a few crude essentials – from mud benches to blocks of stone or a timber chest – the wealthy were demanding a variety of furniture forms to serve several purposes.  In addition to basic stools, there were also chairs, tables, storage chests/coffers and beds being built with increasing sophistication.  

Certain characteristics, like straight backs or raised feet on cylinder pedestals, were indicative of social status – and many pieces featured animal feet pointed in the same direction. Interestingly, ancient Egypt was not resource rich with respect to suitable woods other than acacia, so many species such as ebony, cedar, ash, beech, cypress, elm, maple, pine, and oak were imported from Mediterranean, North African and West Asian countries.  Apparently, large scale importation was already underway as early as 2700 B.C.

Many of the construction techniques employed in ancient Egypt are still used in contemporary furniture making.  For instance, mortise & tenon and dovetail joints were common, as was butt, flat, tongue and groove, scarf, and mitre joinery.  Leather thongs or linen string were also tied to secure joints.  Dowels and pegs often connected distinct pieces, and nails were used to attach metal to wood.  Storage boxes were built using frame and panel method, and tables with a post and lintel design.

Aesthetically, high society Egyptian furniture was quite ornate, embellished often with religious or mythological symbols.  Pieces were inlaid with bone, ebony and other exotic woods, ivory, coloured glass and semi-precious stones.  They may have also featured low relief carvings, gesso, and gold or silver gilding.  Similar to hieroglyphics, decorative motifs included animals (scarab, serpent, vulture), and plants (lotus, palm, papyrus), as well as the ankh, the sphinx and the sun disk.  Clear or dark varnishes were used to further enhance pieces, as were paint, and marquetry.  

And this is just the beginning…

With help from Furniture in History, by Leslie Pina. 
Images from Talaria Enterprises.
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