The ‘ABCs’ of Furniture Anatomy & Decorative Characteristics

The various features of furniture sometimes have practical and straightforward names, words that are easily understood.

If a chair has four curved ‘legs’, or ‘arms’ that are covered in upholstery, we know what that means. We can associate those words with features on objects in our own home and easily visualise what that chair may look like, without seeing it. However, many other terms used to describe the anatomy and physical characteristics of furniture and decorative objects do not relate to everyday words or aspects of the human form like legs and arms. Rather, they draw from Classical architecture, ancient art techniques, and languages such as Latin or French.

It is these terms that define what is special about a particular object and help distinguish its individuality and fine craftsmanship. Allow the images below to aid you in connecting meanings to such names.

 —– Asian Influence —–

Chinoiserie

The word originates from European art and decoration in the mid-17th century. It is often characterized by Asian lacquer work in various colours and decorative Chinese themes of temples and flora and fauna. Chinoiserie as a style spans furniture, decorative objects, screens, wallpaper, and textiles.

Japanning

A European technique developed in the 17th century that imitates Asian lacquer work, a tradition that uses a rare indigenous tree sap repeatedly applied in several layers to create a smooth glossy finish. The European technique uses a black or sometimes coloured material that resembles enamel or hard shellac paint, like this English longcase clock.

In some cases, European furniture incorporates lacquer panels imported from Japan.

Lacquer

A high-gloss varnish used on Chinese and Japanese furniture and decorative objects, such as this 17th century ‘Namban’ export cabinet The original technique before European ‘japanning’.

Vernis Martin

The French technique of imitation lacquer that was developed in the 18th century and associated with Guillaume and Etienne-Simon Martin. Vernis martin was applied in brilliant bright colours, even rare whites and blues, on principally luxury Parisian-made furniture.

 —- Classical Inspiration —-

Cresting

The carved decoration on the top rail of a piece of seating furniture or mirror.

Dentil Moulding

A form of decoration of evenly spaced blocks typically seen on a cornice or along the bottom of a frieze in architecture, interior mouldings, and furniture. The word shares its root with the English ‘dental’, as the blocks resemble teeth!

Fretwork

carved ornamentation consisting of intersecting lines, resembling the design of lattice. Fretwork is associated with classically inspired designs and Chinese patterns. The 18th century English furniture designer, Thomas Chippendale, is known for incorporating fretwork into various designs.

Frieze

A decorative horizontal band that originated in Classical architecture. The band is usually decorated with low relief sculpture of symmetrical columns or figural stories or hand painted scenes. In furniture, it is a long horizontal section below the top or partition between upper and lower sections.

Gallery

An ornamental wood or metal rail around a section of furniture, principally found on surrounding the top surface. It can resemble a miniature stair rail, similar to the brasswork at the top of this cabinet.

 

 —- Decorative Surfaces —-

Ebonising

The process by which a light to medium colour wood is stained dark or almost black to resemble the luxurious dense black hardwood, ebony, imported from the Indies and Africa.

Gilding

A technique of applying gold leaf to wood for decoration.

Giltwood

Carved wood that is covered in gold leaf.

Inlay

 A technique of inlaying a contrasting material into wood (such as metal, mother-of-pearl or ivory) to create a decorative pattern on the surface of a piece of furniture. The technique requires a skilled craftsman to plan a design, chisel out the main body of the wood surface, and carve matching shapes in the contrasting material. The various sections are then adhered to the main surface.

Marquetry

A technique of inlay that uses different types of veneered wood or other materials placed together to form a pictorial pattern. Like inlay the technique requires a skilled craftsman to plan a design, chisel out the main body of the wood surface and then carved matching shapes in the contrasting material(s). The various sections are then adhered to the main surface.

Parquetry

A technique borrowed from wood and tile floor patterns, where wood is cut and laid in a particular fashion creating a geometric pattern.

Pietra dura

 A form of mosaic decoration using small- to medium-cut and polished sized semi-precious stones. Commonly associated with its origins from 16th century Italian furniture tabletops and cabinets from Rome and Florence.

Ormolu

A term derived from 18th century French, used to describe cast bronze that is covered with ground gold or gilt.

Gilt bronze

An English term, the same technique as ormolu.

Sèvres porcelain

A predominant European porcelain manufactory founded in France in the early 18th century with the support of King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Their body of work was known to reflect fashionable taste and decoration, with extensive gilding, elaborate figural and floral scenes, and brightly coloured enamelled backgrounds.

Stretcher

A term describing a piece of wood that often forms an ‘x’, ‘h’ or ‘Y’ shape between the legs of a chair or table. The stretcher was originally used to reinforce the construction, but over time stretchers evolved as a piece of ornamentation with heavily carved or adorned characteristics.

 

 

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Butchoff Antiques Team

Butchoff Antiques was established in 1964, and is now a third-generation family-run business. We specialise in exceptional, exhibition-quality English and Continental furniture, objects d’art, clocks, mirrors, and paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have one of the largest inventories in England, consisting of over a thousand pieces. Our continual quest for the highest quality items on the antique market has led us to a number of rare and important pieces, and many collaborations with world-leading furniture museums and historians. Based in London at our showroom in Kensington Church Street (the city’s ‘Antiques Row’), we are proud of our global reputation. We work directly with clients and interior decorators from across the world, including the provision of sourcing services, and arranging delivery and shipping. Butchoff Antiques regularly exhibits at art and antiques fairs in the United Kingdom and the United States. Fairs at which we have exhibited in the past include Masterpiece London, LAPADA Art and Antiques Fair Berkeley Square, the New York Art, Antique and Jewelry Shows, and the Palm Beach Art, Antique and Jewelry Show. Our gallery at the Palm Beach Design Center, in Palm Beach, Florida, is open from November 2016 through 2017. Articles written by Butchoff Antiques for EAT LOVE SAVOR are shared experiences written by the team at Butchoff Antiques. Butchoff Antiques consists of a team of four professionals with a combined experience of over 80 years in the international antiques and art industries.