Modern furniture and contemporary furniture were born from a change in attitude, style and design that started in the late nineteenth century. Previously, furniture had tended towards more heavy, robust and lavish pieces, items that made a statement for its huge character, rather than simple elegance. Contemporary furniture design has veered more to that very elegance, often characterised by smooth, sleek lines and noted for its neat finishes rather than for its bulk and size.
The opportunity to create new, modern furniture designs has been greatly helped by advances in technology, materials and tooling. Where older pieces were constructed of wood and adorned with intricate, fussy carvings and deep-coloured, luscious fabrics, contemporary furniture is more likely to be built from polished metal, sleek steel and moulded plastics. With the introduction of man-made padding after the Second World War, even soft, cushioned seating can be styled in a more ‘clean’ and slick finish. Even the computer has had an impact on modern furniture, with designers more easily able to manipulate a prototype image to come up with striking and innovative new creations.
The earliest influences of contemporary design stem from the art deco and post-war modernism ages – artists were trying to break away from the conventional and find new ways to push boundaries. This cross-over between creating works of art and designing functional pieces of modern furniture really grew in momentum during the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s and the design of modern furniture shifted to real self-expression and individuality, as well as being serviceable and comfortable to use.
Contemporary furniture design also saw architecture as an inspiration and many of the most influential modern furniture designers were originally better known as architects. The construction of more structural and stylised pieces of modern furniture resonated with these designers and they looked to turn their hand to more immediate ways of expressing their own styles. Some of the most famous architects who became involved in the contemporary furniture movement were Gio Ponti, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright brought a taste of Japanese culture into his modern furniture designs, adding another element to the overall contemporary style. His work, however, though still widely replicated, was not deemed as practical and serviceable as that of Mackintosh, who focused on functionality, with simplistic but highly geometric shaped contemporary furniture pieces.
Italian design was also another strong indicator in contemporary furniture design, but this style of furniture design also took much from French, America and Swedish influences. Many of the original contributors to the contemporary furniture movement, such as Charles and Ray Eames are still highly respected and continue to influence furniture designers to this day.