Gothic furniture is characterized by ornate, unique artwork that contains the same elements found in Gothic architecture. This architectural style is associated with church design, and Gothic furniture was created to complement it. Specific design characteristics that appear in the furniture are gargoyles, flying buttresses, and quatrefoil and trefoil shapes. Pointed arches, tracery, heavy fabrics, and heavy woods are some other characteristics of this type of furniture.
Believed to have originated in churches in the 13th century, Gothic furniture contains intricate carvings, decorative paintings, and elaborate sculptures. Initially found in wealthy homes, the furniture evolved over time and features elaborate, cathedral-style ornamentation. Mirroring features in Gothic architecture on a much smaller scale, the furniture was widely popular in the Middle Ages. Furniture pieces are mostly massive and sturdy with rich, dark colors.
Gothic furniture is very reflective of Gothic art, and motifs such as the linen-fold, the rose, and the wheel were imported from architecture and incorporated into furniture. Colors like gold, forest green, ruby, and purple were used to highlight the rich designs. The walnut, rosewood, oak, and other heavy woods used were finished with a dark patina. Rich fabrics such as leather, brocade, and velvet covered the frames as upholstery. Initially, Gothic furniture started out by being very practical, simple, and robust.
Sideboards and large chests in the Gothic style secured valuables and stored them safely. The feudal lords at that time engaged in warfare constantly, and the furniture had to be shifted around. Crafters added chair backs and feet to chests to make things easier. Tables, cabinets, chairs, and beds evolved over time to have many splendid motifs and great character. Initially decorated with paintings in the 14th century, the furniture began to feature more sculpted ornaments later on.
The fabrics chosen to make chairs matched the wealth of their owners. The chairs became more ornate with many sculptures until they began to resemble royal thrones. Beds became more luxurious with painted and sculpted elements and ornamental bed heads. They became larger and began to feature canopies and delicately carved four-posted pieces. After a while, the wooden sections were hidden with beautiful curtains.
Beautifully embroidered blankets and mattresses became the norm. Many precious fabrics containing embroidery with gold threads draped the beds. Tables were sometimes made of gold or silver, while the less wealthy utilized sculpted tables made of marble and stone.
The Gothic Eras
The traditional Gothic era lasted from the 12th to the 16th century. “Old World” styles were initially influenced by Islamic, Romanesque, arabesque, and Byzantine elements. Originating in France, Gothic art initiated this era.
The original Gothic era is separated into three distinct periods:
- Early Gothic (1150-1250)
- High Gothic (1250-1375)
- Late or International Gothic (1375-1450)
During the Victorian era, artisans incorporated other styles into their creations. The Gothic Revival period during the mid-1800s, also known as Reformed Gothic and Modern Gothic, ushered in New Gothic furniture.
Because production and manufacturing techniques advanced dramatically due to the new machinery capabilities during the Gothic Revival period, Gothic furniture became more affordable. Components were made by machines rather than by hand, so the construction process was faster, thus cutting costs and making completed pieces available to more people.
Distinctly Gothic Features
There are a few furniture features that, when seen, are immediately recognizable as Gothic.
Because Gothic furniture initially mimicked Gothic architectural style, many pieces of furniture include geometric elements. Flying buttresses were used in architecture for support, and pointed arches resembling those buttresses became a widespread feature of Gothic furniture.
Carvings and Motifs
Decorative features such as carvings ornamented Gothic era furniture. Two main themes that influenced the types of carvings used were religion and nature. Carvings of foliage were often used on chairs and tables, and metal hinges included animals and birds.
Different focal points were used depending upon the region; the French often used the Fleur-de-Lis, while the Tudor Rose was popular in England.
Paneling often featured relief carvings that resembled folded linen. For example, linenfold features could be found on doors and were sometimes divided into sections using window tracery styles.
Gargoyles and dragons often found themselves adorning Gothic furniture. Although religion heavily influenced Gothic designs, these otherwise "evil" beings were thought to protect the pieces and the people who used them. Hawks, griffins, and lions were also commonly-used animals.
Carvings were added to the wooden Gothic furniture pieces, while cut-outs removed shapes such as flowers from the wood. This sort of reverse decoration was used for many types of furniture.
Most Gothic furniture pieces were elaborate and substantial in size. Heavy, carved legs in interesting shapes were used for both stability and to complement the size and feel of the dark, sometimes-massive furniture.
Paintings, Inlays, and Tapestries
Dull colors prevailed during the Gothic era. However, vibrant design elements including richly woven tapestries, elaborate inlays, and elegant paintings were added to Gothic furniture. The rich colors used in these features added much-needed contrast to the dark tones commonly used during that time.
Types of Gothic Furniture
Utilitarian pieces such as storage chests and sideboards were the first types of Gothic furniture. Because seating options were rare, backs were later added to storage chests to provide versatility. As Gothic furniture evolved, craftsmen added more pieces, including chairs, chess game cabinets, beds, armoires, buffets, cupboards, tables, and cabinets.
Benches were the primary source of seating at the beginning of the Gothic era. Chairs were very rare, and as the Gothic furniture movement progressed, were seen as a symbol of power and wealth. Later chairs incorporated seat padding, canopies, sculptures, and intricate carvings. Some chairs used by the very wealthy became so elaborate that they resembled thrones and were some of the most prized pieces of Gothic furniture.
Heavy, darkly finished wood was used to build most Gothic furniture. The type of wood commonly used varied by country:
- England — oak
- France — chestnut
- Germany — oak
- Italy — walnut
- Spain — walnut
Wrought iron components were used as functional but decorative design elements. Hinges, handles, and curtain rods for bed hangings are prime examples.
Homes, churches, and castles sometimes featured marble, silver, bronze, gold, or stone tables.
Gothic Furniture Today
Not many pieces of furniture from the first Gothic era have survived; however, many items created during the Gothic Revival period are still in use today.
Whether your home is built in a Gothic or modern style, you can find many antique Gothic Revival furniture pieces to accentuate your living space. Some of these pieces are:
- Ornate mirrors
- Chests of drawers
- Sofas and chairs
- Tables and desks
- Sideboards, buffets, and armoires
If authenticity is important to you, find a reputable expert or antiques dealer to verify the origins of pieces you are considering purchasing.
Modern manufacturers offer many Gothic-style furniture choices. Although many modern pieces feature the dark wood used in antique items, furniture finished in lighter wood tones is available. Some pieces are painted in colors such as deep purple and dark teal.