Important distinctions were made between the architect and the artisan (head and hand) in the 1400s during the rise of the Renaissance. Leon Battista Alberti’s writing gets right to the point in articulating distinctions between thinking and making in architectural theory. Four hundred years later, the Industrial Revolution furthered the polemic gap between "head" and "hand" in the midst of the nineteenth century. Furniture entrepreneurs such as Michael Thonet began to pave the way for design to emerge within the culture of mechanization and industry. Simultaneous with the rise of industry, writers and crafts persons such as John Ruskin, William Morris, and Gustav Stickley did their utmost to rekindle the notion of craft and workmanship in furniture design. In the twentieth century, the woodworkers and educators Ernest Joyce and David Pye clarified distinctions between craft (workmanship of risk) and machine production (workmanship of certainty) in their respective books, The Encyclopedia of Furniture Making, and The Art and Nature of Design. Sociologist Edward T. Hall and industrial designers Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes contributed to the collective context of furniture design, though their perspectives were not always aligned. From ancient Rome through modern times, theorists have written treatises that have guided the evolving culture of furniture design, which have influenced, in turn, generations of designers, fabricators, and educators. Their writings and works serve as references for all to access and understand.
Throughout the history of architecture and design, writers and theorists have formulated different ways of deconstructing wholes into parts with the goal of addressing all aspects of a subject in due time. A standard procedure is to mentally construct a map, or model, of any given field, then to systematically travel through the field with map in hand as a guide—enabling relationships to emerge, which can result in a broader understanding of the subject. One of the first authors to conceive of a conceptual construct regarding the subject of architecture was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.
Vitruvius was a Roman architect and theorist who wrote about architecture in the first century CE. In his architectural treatise, The Ten Books on Architecture, he is credited with the phrase "firmitas, utilitas and venustas" in an attempt to portray a comprehensive view of architecture. The deconstructive approach of subdividing a whole into parts is useful in breaking the comprehensive nature of architecture into its components to clarify the subject without overwhelming the reader. Furniture design is no less complicated in this regard and, to the point, has guided the organization of this book.
Within the past century, many books and publications on furniture have impacted the academic, professional, and popular cultures of our time. John Pile, author and professor of
Interior Design, and professor at Pratt in New York City structured several critiques on design into classifications that embrace purpose, structure, and visual expression. His Books Modern Furniture and Design Purpose, Form, and Meaning do this well. Louis Sullivan, a Chicago architect who partnered with Adler and once employed Frank Lloyd Wright, spoke and wrote about Form and Function in the most general and collective of meanings. The phrase Form Follows Function is commonly attributed to Sullivan but was actually coined by Horatio Greenough.
Edward Lucie-Smith, author of Furniture Design—A Concise History, introduced an effective notion of taxonomy and typology in regard to furniture design by formulating four essential classifications: use, form, personal expression, and social status. Mark Hinchman’s History of Furniture—A Global View is an extensive and comprehensive resource that is well written and well illustrated. David Pye, professor of furniture design in Cambridge, England, contributed his insight into the areas of technology and production through his book The Art and Nature of Design. He elaborated on workmanship of risk (craft) and workmanship of certainty (machine production) in the book. Ernest Joyce contributed to a generation of furniture designers and fabricators through his technical understanding and straightforward approach in writing about fabrication processes in his seminal book, The Encyclopedia of Furniture Making. Galen Cranz contributed to the cultural and physiological notion of seating, ergonomics, and posture in her book The Chair. She presents an important critique about seating within a sociological and cultural context. These are excellent works that contribute to the larger body of knowledge in furniture design.
Authors, designers, gallery and museum curators, faculty, students, and consumers organize design into various components, proceeding to elaborate in some degree of depth on the components. In a gestalt psychology approach to design, where part-to-whole relationships are paramount, but the "parts" are never as great as the "whole," efforts to organize information and ideas into disparate categories are conceived and developed as a place to begin the journey but never intended as the place to reside for long.
Scores of journals abound, from design-based publications such as Domus, ID, Ottogano, Frame, Details, and Metropolis to more vocational journals such as Woodshop and Fine Woodworking. Books on the subject cover a broad range of approaches to the field with depth and focus on fabrication and production techniques. Other approaches include cataloguing and documenting individual works and designers as in Carol Soucek King’s book Furniture—Architects and Designer’s Originals or Charlotte and Peter Fiell’s Modern Furniture Classics.
Although most books focus explicitly in depth on one point and are written for selective and focused markets, journals and publications often fall short in helping to reinforce or to cultivate a collective body of knowledge of furniture design that serves several markets. But with a growing interest and broad-based activity of design within the field, the time seems ideal to formulate a collective dialogue that transcends professional boundaries. More books are needed to introduce a broader range of ideas, and individuals, within this emerging discipline.