Furniture design and the art of the original

Anselm Fraser, principal, Chippendale International School of Furniture

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

It’s an apt quote for every furniture designer to remember because, while you may think that your innovative idea for a next-generation chair is revolutionary – chances are it’s been thought of before.

It’s a lesson that we teach our students at the start of each course, because the human body hasn’t changed much over the millennia. Therefore the things we lie on, sit on, store things in, or eat at haven’t changed much either.

Take, for example, the bikini. Designed in France (where else?) and unveiled in Paris in 1946, its name was inspired by a US atomic test on an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. So, not such a romantic name.

However, despite becoming an icon of post-War emancipation, the earliest surviving depiction of a bikini is on a mosaic found in Sicily and dating from the 4th century AD. In the intervening sixteen centuries, the bikini hadn’t changed at all.

The same nothing-under-the-sun rule applies to virtually everything else – from the houses we live in to the food we eat. Simply, our everyday lives are shaped by the creativity of centuries.

In furniture design, we need only look to a small Neolithic settlement on Orkney, a stunningly-beautiful island archipelago off the north of Scotland.

The settlement itself is called Skara Brae and consists of eight dwellings, linked together by a series of passages, and dating to between 3200BC and 2200BC.

Remarkably, each house has surviving beds, cupboards, dressers and shelves. The only reason they’ve survived, making them some of the world’s oldest furniture, is that Orkney didn’t (and doesn’t) have trees. All the Stone Age furniture is aptly made entirely from stone.

Skara Brae
Skara Brae

Maybe not very comfortable, but a salutary lesson that furniture designers have been designing furniture for over 4000 years. Hardly surprising therefore that we’ve ended up with comfortable chairs, beds, tables and chairs – we’ve had many centuries to get the basic designs right.

In other words, as we tell our students, be very careful what you design and then claim to be original. After all, there are thousands of furniture designers out there, all trying to reinvent what has already been invented.

Take an example from earlier this year – the season finale of a US reality TV competition (“Ellen’s Design Challenge”) that came with a $100,000 cash prize.

The two finalists unveiled their designs for a table, and the first prize was duly awarded to a 44-year-old furniture designer from Colorado. “My life just changed even beyond what I can imagine,” he said optimistically.

Except that his life then immediately changed for the worse, when the TV station stripped him of his prize, after deciding that his winning design too closely resembled a table made by a German designer – who hadn’t actually complained, and didn’t know anything about the TV show.

It’s called plagiarism, which comes from the Latin word for “kidnapper,” and (if you’re interested) was first used by the Roman poet Martial in the context that someone, allegedly, had stolen some of his verses.

Sometimes it’s done accidentally, sometimes on purpose. A recent blog from a UK furniture and interior designer warns: “It is an increasing trend for ‘trade’ visitors to appear at a [furniture trade] show and take many detailed pictures of the latest furniture for the specific purpose of copying it. Most of these visitors are form overseas where they perhaps don’t have the design flare or knowledge of the UK market – but they do have cheap labour!”

It’s a problem that continues to rear its ugly head. Take, for example, the concept of a bound “book” that folds out like an accordion to become a stool, foot rest or desk. It was successfully crowdfunded in the past year from the Far East and achieved international publicity.

However, such was the media focus it generated that it came to the attention of another designer in Canada who felt that his intellectual rights had been infringed. He had, it seems, already designed something rather similar.

The trouble, of course, is determining if a newly-designed chair really is the unique, innovative and revolutionary piece of furniture that its creator claims – or merely a variant on an existing design.

The difference between innovation and variation can be very small, and open to wide interpretation, but could land an unwary designer in trouble. The internet makes everything visible, across continents.

It wasn’t always so. Take Thomas Chippendale, the revered 18th century designer and maker who has lent his name to the Chippendale International School of Furniture.

He was happy to publish his “Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director” – which made him a household name – and which contained every one of his furniture designs, many of which were themselves adaptations of existing styles for a mid-18th century audience.

With the publication of the Director, other furniture makers were the able to plagiarise from his designs – at least until the end of the century when they began instead to plagiarise from the French styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

Back then, of course, imitation was seen as the sincerest form of flattery. It cemented Chippendale’s name in the lexicon of great furniture designers.

Nowadays, imitation is not seen as flattery. It could even land you in court, or cost you a reality TV first prize.

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