Anselm Fraser, principal of the Chippendale furniture school

A brief history of woodworking

A national newspaper recently asked Anselm Fraser, our principal, for an article on the early history of furniture design and woodworking.  Here’s what he had to say.

In considering the history of furniture design, we need only look to a small Neolithic settlement on Orkney, off the north of Scotland.

Skara Brae 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.

Maybe not very comfortable, but it underlines how furniture designers have been designing furniture for over 4000 years.

Hardly surprising therefore that we’ve ended up with comfortable beds, tables and chairs – we’ve had many centuries to get the basic designs right.

The Book of Genesis depicts one of the world’s first woodworkers.  God gave Noah the task of building an Ark out of cypress wood, 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high.

This means that the Ark, if it ever existed, would have been about 450 feet long, and the size of a four-storey building.

Nor should we forget St Joseph, patron saint of woodworkers, and the father of Jesus.  Joseph, of course, was a carpenter.

However, at that time there was a cultural requirement for fathers to teach their sons their trade from the age of 12.  Jesus would therefore have been a furniture designer.

The fact is that furniture design has been around since the dawn of time, and we have examples of ancient woodworking by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese.

For example, archaeologists recently found a remarkably intact furniture shop in Pompeii, largely destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 779AD.  It would have been the IKEA of its day.

Wood has always been one of our most plentiful resources, and one that’s relatively easy to fashion into chairs and tables.

All that’s really changed over the millennia is our ability to more easily work with wood, with modern equipment and machinery taking away much of the donkey work.

And technology continues to impact on woodworking.  For example, computer aided design or 3D printing, where a particular design for a piece of furniture can be built in miniature, and shown to the customer for final design approval.

It’s a piece of high-tech wizardly that Noah would have approved of.  It would have saved him a lot of hassle, and perhaps giving the unicorns more time to get on board.

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