More is more! Why did the Georgians design multi-purpose furniture?

By Daisy Watson

It is the fashion of the present day, to resort to a number of contrivances for making one piece of furniture serve many purposes

Thomas Martin, The New Circle of the Mechanical Arts, 1819

The ingenious cabinet-makers of the Georgian period produced various multi-purpose pieces of furniture that were as beautiful as they were functional. These pieces of furniture are still highly sought after, fiercely contested at auction houses, and even influential to contemporary multi-functional furniture designs. Yet, while these ‘wacky’ designs such as library steps concealed in stools, pull-out beds, and folding tables arouse consistent interest, few delve into the reasons why such pieces were designed. The story of dual-functioning furniture offers an interesting perspective on how factors of discovery, design, and demand lead to innovation. This article will take you on a journey through mechanical occasional furniture, metamorphic chairs, and inventive solutions, arriving at our final question. Why did the Georgians design multi-purpose furniture?  

The first part of our journey begins by consolidating our general knowledge of what Georgian mechanical furniture actually is. Mechanical or metamorphic furniture is anything that gives two or more functions from just one piece of furniture. Its dual nature allows for mechanical ingenuity to be implemented, such as the space-saving designs of folding or extendable tables. Importantly, these designs are still visually appealing, often incorporating neo-classical and gothic styles that were popular in England at the time. Despite the popularity and success of such pieces, little has been written on the subject and today’s attributions rely heavily on cabinet-makers’ documentations. 

We will break down a few iconic examples multi-functional furniture.

The ‘Patent Metamorphic Library Chair’ design was patented by Morgan and Sanders and is illustrated in Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts for July 1811. Combining library steps and a mahogany chair, this dual-use piece of furniture was designed for the library. With the chair turned over at the hinge, connected to the base of the chair, it transforms into steps allowing the user to reach higher library shelves. Other firms such as Gillows produced similar dual-use chairs and steps.

Pitt’s cabinet globe writing table, as illustrated in Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts in 1810 combines a writing table and a globe. As described by Ackermann, it is one of the grandest and most elegant pieces of furniture that ever decorated the modern library. At once a handsome globe, when the two halves are folded down it creates the surface of a convenient writing table. According to Ackermann, it had already obtained the patronage of the Royal Family, who are “ever the foremost to encourage real merit”. 

There are many different variations of the extendable dining table. Here at Nicholas Wells Antiques, our late 18th-century extendable Dining table in mahogany can lengthen to offer different opportunities to socialise in larger assemblies.

The next part of our journey asks who were the producers and consumers of multi-functional furniture. We will be answering the important question, were they considered essential pieces of furniture or just a novelty?

There was certainly a demand for dual-purpose furniture in both the Georgian and Regency eras as London experienced a surge of innovation. Museums of curiosity opened their doors, aimed to entertain the public with inventive novelty items. This resulted in the demand and production of specialised pieces, known as patent metamorphic furniture. Classically informed by their grand tours and intrigued by mechanical devices, educated wealthy families were keen to purchase, and were willing to pay for beautiful furniture in time and trouble. Those who commissioned metamorphic items had already attained knowledge of the rules and proportions of furniture and architecture from technical books. Therefore, patrons were often technical equals to specialist firms and cabinet-makers, able to discuss details and rules of classicism and practicality. The popularity of these pieces implies that they held real value in the homes of those who wanted to express their interest in innovation whilst utilising their space effectively. The Regency period saw a shift in how interiors were planned and utilised. Convenience and elegance were of the highest importance. Furniture had to be light, small, and easily movable. Furthermore, the form of assembly rooms in private houses increased in popularity from the 18th-century. With larger more ambitious assemblies, the formal house ceased to work. As a result, instead of a hall and saloon between privately occupied apartments, a series of communal rooms were needed for this scale of entertainment. This also meant furniture had to be versatile to accommodate various social functions. A real need for versatile furniture shows how multi-functional design played an essential role in the Georgian and Regency eras.

The vogue of spacious interiors. James Stephanoff The Second Drawing Room, Buckingham House 1818

However, while metamorphic furniture proved practical and useful, it was not wholly popular or approved. An 1834 article in The Architectural Magazine observed that such pieces corrupt the taste of the cabinet-maker, degenerating their designs into the absurd. It was contended that these designs would alter the mode of the traditional education of cabinet-makers, taking away the necessity for basic principles of perspective and geometry. From this historical context of the producers and consumers, we can conclude that there was indeed a demand for novelty items during this period, but these pieces of furniture were not solely designed for novel purposes. They were popular and innovative and therefore provided inventive solutions in a fun, sometimes ‘wacky’ way.

Finally, in the last part of our journey, we will explore the whyWhy were metamorphic pieces of furniture designed and produced?

There are a few different reasons why such designs were so popular and sought after. Firstly, as we have previously uncovered, metamorphic furniture is perfectly aligned with combined interests in novel inventive items and the need for practical, movable, and versatile furniture. While small occasional furniture’s versatility made them a favourite addition to the Georgian home, metamorphic furniture went one step further. In many ways, the design of metamorphic furniture can be seen as a metaphor for Georgian England during a period of burgeoning industrialisation. Man and machine’s new partnership, alongside an enduring taste of the neo-classical style, created the perfect environment for innovative designs to flourish. With such an emphasis placed on architecture, cabinet-makers had to attract clients with innovative ideas for furniture that did not take away too much attention from an interior but could adapt to changing fashions with unique and interesting designs. However, metamorphic design was not only used in interiors. Dual-functioning items were also designed for travellers, including those involved in military campaigns of the late 18th and early 19th-centuries. Folding tables, beds, and sets of drawers enclosed in travelling chests all provided practical solutions to the problems of travel. Metamorphic furniture, therefore, was utilised both inside and outside of the home, for practical, novel, and inventive solutions. 

The exceptional quality of craftsmanship, its elegance, and its immense variety of design has enabled Georgian furniture to stand the test of time. But, as we have discovered, creative, innovative, and fun designs truly made this period of furniture special. Nicholas Wells Antiques specialises in 18th and 19th-century European furniture, with an expert eye for spotting the finest examples of furniture design. If you wish to continue your Georgian multi-functional furniture journey, explore our collection to bring these fashionable ingenious designs into your own space.