Throughout history, furniture design has, for the most part, been wholly practical. Until relatively recently, little thought was given to comfort and, more often than not, it was only the most important person in the room who got to sit on the chair.
Today, upholstery is considered as much a practical consideration as are style and form. Depending on the piece of furniture, it could very well be of vital importance; lives have become far more sedentary and nobody wants to lounge on an uncomfortable sofa. However, for many hundreds of years, long before the advent of modern expectations as to what furniture should be, upholstery wasn’t thought of as a necessity at all, but rather an embellishment that many could not afford. Instead, what dominated was form. Furniture - a stool, a bench or a table - was plain; it was highly functional and serviceable and that had to be enough.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that carpenters began to consider comfort and started making cushioned seats for their richer customers. Furniture legs and backs also came under medieval scrutiny, becoming a means of displaying woodwork design and hand carving as well: another nod to the means and status of the wealthy.
Upholstery has always necessitated a great degree of skill and experienced craftsmanship. Not only is an integral understanding of the form being covered required, but also, extensive knowledge of the different materials necessary to provide all the requisite padding in just the right places. If an object is constantly in use, form and shape must be maintained, whilst also being aesthetically pleasing. Not least, needlework is of the utmost importance. Upholstery skills learned many hundreds of years ago have been passed down through generations.
By the Nineteenth Century, upholstery had become a very well paid and well thought of profession. Always an expensive, exclusive commodity, it stayed this way until the Industrial Revolution when more people than ever before had the opportunity to buy upholstered furniture. New machinery enabled upholstery to be produced much faster and more swiftly: it could therefore be purchased much more cheaply. On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution and the deluge of factory-produced goods that resulted meant that the standard of living was raised considerably for a great number of people. However, there was a downside.
William Morris, for one, was appalled by what he saw as shoddily, machine-made, mass-produced furniture. As the founding father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, his aim was to inspire a drive back towards craftsmanship and artisanal skill. Morris was all too aware that he couldn’t halt technology in its tracks, but he and his contemporaries still believed that it was imperative there was a place for quality and beauty. The march of progress should not sweep human skill and aesthetics aside.
Well into the 20th Century, artists and craftsmen, designers and architects continued to have concerns over the mass production of mediocre products. Upholstery was no exception and the 1930s was a decade in which it particularly suffered; its circumstances were, in a way, a reflection of what was going on in the world at the time. Unemployment meant far less disposable income for what were considered to be the finer things in life and upholstery was one of those luxuries. Having grown accustomed to upholstered goods meant that demand for them from consumers still existed; it could, however, not be afforded. Consequently, sweatshops became all too common and what was produced, was deliberately made not to last in order to create a continued need for replacement.
Nowadays, we can see the mistakes of past reflected all too clearly in the mistakes of the present. That said, more and more companies are taking an ethical stance when it comes to production and are committed to giving careful consideration to their workforces, the environment and the wishes of their consumers.
Any object that has been handcrafted is a thing of beauty for a myriad of reasons and this is equally true for piece of furniture that has been upholstered well. A piece of furniture that has been hand upholstered well is not just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also an embodiment of true craftsmanship and skills and a heritage that has been passed down through hundreds of generations; it’s made to last and stand the test of time. A stitch in time really does save nine.