Mechanical furniture has a diverse and well-documented history. These marvels of engineering were marriages of ingenuity and craftsmanship, and were as mechanically complex as they were beautiful. Whether they were utilitarian and make life a little easier, or simply fulfilled a desire and made life a little more enjoyable, mechanical furnishings played an important role in the evolution of furniture design.
Out of Necessity
The famed London Exhibition of 1851 was the first public display of these inventive works and served to usher in what can be referred to as the golden age of mechanical furniture. Most of the examples showcased consisted of items that were either intended for use by traveling professionals or for medical purposes, such as office furniture and bleeding chairs respectively. However, the groundwork for these practical items was forged well before, by some of the most respected names in furniture making
The desire to create furniture that serves multiple purposes has inspired some of the greatest furniture in history. Many craftsmen began utilizing the art form to display their virtuosity, and clients wished to own them to display their discerning taste. The first echoes of mechanical furniture began in the 18th century when cabinetmakers first began creating items such as desks and bureaus with secret compartments, hidden pulls and pushes by commission. As engineering and crafting techniques evolved, so did the demand for these fascinating furnishings increase among the nobility and social elite.
Circa 1760, leading Parisian ébéiniste Jean-Francois Oeben created an awe-inspiring invalid table for the handicapped Duc de Bourgogne, the eldest grandson of Louis XV. Known as a "table a la Borgogne" seemingly simplistic chest of five drawers was actually an incredible masterpiece that was able to perform the tasks of a bookcase, writing desk, traveling lap desk, necessaire and a "prie-dieu" (or prayer bench), all encased within a body of elegant marquetry.
By the end of the 18th century, it became apparent to furniture makers that their innovative creations required protection from imitators attempting to profit from the original creations. Countries such as England and Italy had established government-regulated patent systems in the 1470s, France and the United States had established official patent systems by the end of the century, giving official protections to all inventors, including gifted cabinetmakers. This wide-spread protection of innovation ushered in the era of “patent” mechanical furniture, and by the first half of the 19th century, a prolific increase in the popularity of “multi-purpose” furniture was in full force.
Robert Jupe, at the time a London upholsterer, conceived the idea for a "revolving" table early in the 1830s. His table was equally suited for intimate gatherings or large, formal dinners. Though Jupe's incredible table was well received, his company Johnstone, Jupe & Co., produced them for only 5 years (1835-1840).
In March, 1835, Robert Jupe patented his design for “an improved expanding table so constructed that the sections composing its surface may be caused to diverge from a common center and that the spaces caused thereby may be filled up by inserting leaves or filling pieces.” One of the most novel dining tables that evolved during the early part of the 19th century, this ingenious table extends from a smaller diameter of 66” to a much larger 92”. When the top is turned, a capstan mechanism allows the sections to diverge from the common center. Once fully opened, each of the eight leaves could be inserted, creating a beautiful expanded dining table for seating eight. Today, the handful of these early Jupe pieces that exist are among the rarest of all antique furniture.
Expansion of Patent Furniture
Wooton Desk Manufacturing Co. was established in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1870 by William S. Wooton. His “portable office” desk quickly became the most in-demand piece of office furniture among the greatest businessmen of the age, including J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Joseph Pulitzer. Realizing the implications of his invention, which contained shelves, cabinets, writing space, filing cabinets among its many specialties, Wooten got an official patent on October 6, 1874 for the Wooten Desk. The Wooten desk is the crowning achievement of Victorian patent furniture. Designed to be, in effect, a working office, the piece was made almost exclusively to special order. Consequently, no two desks are ever exactly alike.
In 1880, Theo A. Kochs Company of Chicago patented his now famous, and somewhat notorious, bleeding and barber chair. Barbers of the day, who also acted as mock surgeons, often performed minor surgeries, including the infamous practice of bleeding. Bleeding was used for removing "bad blood" to cure various ailments including reduction of swelling and expulsion of bad spirits or “humors”. These fascinating chairs were crafted of fine timbers with handsome tufted leather or velvet upholstery, while a platform underneath the footstool held a draining bucket for the blood.
Spanning the arenas of necessity, business and medicine, the masters of mechanical furniture created the most innovative and beautiful furnishings ever made. Today, these pieces are some of the most desirable antiques, representing both the limitless imagination and skillful hand of the cabinetmaker.