In the present age, it is customary to find certain staple pieces of furniture in every household, across various socio-economic conditions. A basic bed, a cupboard, or chairs are found in almost every household, whereas more luxurious pieces like the armoire, bar carts, or a chaise lounge are seen exclusively in select households. However, there was a time when Indians did not use furniture. Houses across urban and rural areas and social classes did have sparse furnishings.
There was no place for furniture in Indian households, which often surprised our European and Western counterparts. The Indian taste in furniture has been molded by the colonizers like the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British. When the Portuguese made their first contact with India, they were surprised to see that only mattresses and cushions were used by the common folks however, symbolic items like the throne were used by the kings and the queens of the palaces. So, one can say with absolute certainty that Indian furniture has its unique characteristics influenced by the western world.
As the Portuguese entered India through the southern part in the 15th century, they were surprised to see that Indians did not use furniture. This put a damper on their plans to build residential buildings in South India. As a quick fix to this problem, the Portuguese brought furniture from their homeland and asked the expert craftsmen of India to replicate it. This style was soon dubbed the “Indo-Portuguese” style which was characterized by large cabinets and intricate carvings. In the 16th century, Mughals arrived in northern India and their trademark was seen in the use of heavy furniture made of dark wood that had inlaid bone or ebony decorations. Common furniture includes mirrors and writing desks. The “Goan Style” was also quite common in the southern part of India which was influenced by the Portuguese and was decorated with geometric or abstract inlays enlarged cabinets.
The dutch came to India in the 16th century and brought their distinctive styles of making furniture to India. Just like the Indo-Portuguese style, it gave rise to the Indo-Dutch style of furniture in India. This style can be further divided into two subtypes. The first one had light-colored hardwoods with inlaid bone and incised decorations. On the other hand, the second group had been made with dark-colored wood like mahogany and ebony that had intricate floral patterns. This floral design was manufactured in Java which was a part of the Dutch eastern administration in India.
Throwing light on the evolution of furniture within our country, especially in western India, states like Gujarat and Rajasthan have colorful paintings on furniture. Traditional designs and motifs are painted in bright colors to attract the customer, making it a staple in these states. Initially, most furniture was made of expensive woods, due to its high availability, which included hardwoods like teak, rosewood, and acacia. Ivory and leathers were also used, which are now banned in most parts of the world in today’s day and age. In the 21st century, furniture like charpoys and almaris are making a statement comeback, as they are seen as having the perfect blend of quirky and utilitarian.
Apart from the Portuguese and the dutch, the Britishers had the greatest impact on Indian furniture. This furniture style was admired by the British officials and the royals of India. Like other European designs, they had high aesthetic value and were often found in sets, with high and straight backs and flat seats. Other famous English styles of furniture included the Chippendale and Sheraton styles. Locally sourced wood and materials were oftentimes used by the manufactures to get the perfect British style of furniture. As furniture became lighter and more portable, it was found in the houses of common folk. Later on, during the independence movement, Indian furniture got its spin, which had elements that made it more accessible to people other than the dying royalty. Usability and the use of low-cost materials have taken a center seat, thus making it widely accessible. As we are entering a digital age, the sale of furniture is also going digital. Popular stores are making their mark on the digital marketplace despite having a brick and mortar store.
Modern Indian furniture today is manufactured from Himalayan teak, Acacia, mango & rosewood. Recycling from old discarded furniture & traditional Indian residences and palaces in the villages is a common practice. The recovered furniture is refurbished and crafted intricately to convert into brand new entities. Charpais, almaris, jhulas, ornamented master beds, and old fashioned round tables with bloated legs are slowly making a come back for their rustic old world charm. Indians are efficiently maintaining the traditional way of using simple tools in the manufacturing process. As the furniture is carved from traditional tools it manages to retain its ethnicity. This simple process has made Indian furniture a symbol of longevity and elegance.
Bridging the gap between furniture and architecture by creating a powerful and highly compatible environment, a new design trend is transforming spaces at the intersection of the two. The demand for a device-oriented society and flexibility in spaces have opened more avenues towards an increased versatility of space. Both these things operate at the confluence of two spans of human interaction, carving a cohesive design approach for interior living spaces.