Going back thousands of year, artisans have incorporated animal motifs into furniture pieces. The Egyptians, who believed certain animals were sacred to deities, often carved the legs of chairs and beds to resemble the legs of a variety of animals, from bulls to gazelles to lions. The ancient Greeks also created furniture with legs that imitated those of animals and also decorated with heads of animals and mythical creatures carved in high relief. Animal motifs in furniture can both charm and inspire, and they have remained popular in design for thousands of years. Join us as we highlight some examples of our favorite beastly furniture styles that utilize this much-loved design element.
After the artistic heights of the classical period came to an end and the Middle Ages began, highly decorative motifs in furniture became practically non-existent until emerging again in the 16th century. French Renaissance design, like the Italian Renaissance, revived the art forms of ancient Greece and Rome; however, French artisans adopted a Mannerist approach to its furniture pieces with more fluid, sinuous lines. This Mannerist style also included the use of animals and mythological beasts of half human, half animal form such as satyrs and harpies.
One of the most well-known leaders in the history of the world, Napoléon Bonaparte knew the importance of symbols and used them to his advantage during his time as Emperor of France. Napoléon appointed the eagle, symbolizing strength, as his imperial emblem and the bee, symbolizing industriousness, as his personal emblem. His beloved wife Josephine adopted the swan, the sacred bird of Apollo, as her own symbol. A brief but impactful design period known as the Empire Period (1800-1815) roughly coincided with Napoléon’s reign and frequently included these symbols of the Empire in its furniture designs.
Napoléon wished to align himself with great leaders of the past, thus the Empire style harkened back to the classical world of the Greeks and Romans and the early kings of Europe. Blending these symbolic animals of the Empire into classical forms and ornamentation of the Louis XVI period enabled Napoléon to promote his reign and link his regime to those that had come before him.
Early Georgian Period
Ball and claw furniture feet originated in China as a dragon’s claw grasping a pearl, but the motif made its way to Europe where it became a favorite of English cabinetmakers during the 18th century as a modification of the cabriole leg. Europeans altered it slightly to resemble a bird talon or lion’s paw, and elegantly carved ball and claw furniture became a staple of 18th-century furniture.
A subset of the early Georgian style, Palladian-style furniture was inspired by the architecture of Andrea Palladio, a highly influential Italian architect of the 16th century. Palladianism was based on the design principles of classical Roman architecture, and its greatest proponent was the architect and furniture designer, William Kent. Kent was influenced by Palladio’s structures during his Grand Tour to Rome, and he brought the style back to Britain with his own interpretation of it. Drawing from the forms and ornaments of ancient Roman buildings, his designs were substantial, symmetrical, heavily gilded and carved with animal masks, eagles and sphinxes. Palladian furniture stood apart from most other early Georgian furniture in that it was designed and made for a small, very wealthy class of people and appeared only in their great country homes, mansions and palaces.
Certainly one of the most charming design styles ever conceived, Black Forest furniture and decorative objects are known for their roughly hewn, expressive forest creature woodcarvings. Contrary to its name, Black Forest carvings do not come from the Bavarian Black Forest of southwestern Germany and instead originated in the Swiss Alp town of Brienz. In the early 1800s, Switzerland became a popular destination for English travelers who wanted to experience the grand Alpine landscape. Local craftsman began creating carvings of the birds, stags and bears these tourists would see on their hikes, and these objects became popular souvenirs. Bears outsold all other animals in Black Forest carvings, and they were commonly depicted in whimsical, humorous and even humanlike poses. Black Forest carving reached its golden age in the mid-19th century, and its artisans gained world renown, exhibiting at international exhibitions such as the London Great Exhibition of 1851, Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893 and Exposition Universelle Paris of 1900.