A brief history of garden furniture: from uncomfortable stone seats to sophisticated furnishings

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Katerina Bulovska
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Over the centuries, garden furniture, much in the same way as indoor furniture, has gone through changes in appearance, design, and material used for its construction. Since ancient times, gardens have been an important part of every household for both the production of food and for recreation.

The ancient Egyptians used furniture woven from abundant natural resources such as swamp grasses and reeds that grow on the banks of the Nile River. The furniture was originally made for their homes, but the Egyptians also used it outdoors for relaxing in the garden.

The Ancient Greeks were the first to make furniture exclusively for use in the garden, later copied by the Romans. Their benches and seats were quite uncomfortable and heavy, made from stone, yet commonly used in the outdoor spaces. While unearthing the ancient Roman town of Pompeii, archeologists discovered the oldest surviving examples of outdoor furniture in the gardens of these ancient houses.

Taba Heights (Sinai, Egypt). Author: Marc Ryckaert (MJJR). CC BY 3.0

In the Middle Ages, gardens had more of a functional than decorative purpose. People cultivated vegetables, fruits, and medicinal herbs and mostly spent time working in the garden instead of relaxing. Additionally, garden furniture did not see much development, except for the introduction of the turf benches. Almost every medieval garden had one and they became an instantly recognizable element of the medieval gardens.

Turf benches in the painting Virgin and Child with saints and donor family, Cologne, c. 1430

The turf benches had a variety of forms–most of them were rectangular, but there are also U-shaped and L-shaped examples. They were made of wood planks or stone, and later brick or wattle, while turf covered the soil in the container. Turf benches were so popular, that they were even depicted in many garden paintings that date back to the beginning of the 15th century.

Garden chairs and table. Author: Rept0n1x. CC BY-SA 3.0

With the beginning of the Renaissance, gardens were once again in full bloom. Impressive fountains, topiaries, and colorful flower beds attracted people to the newly formed gardens. They returned to the pleasures of spending time relaxing in the garden, drinking tea, playing musical instruments, and even playing games. The large static seats from the indoors were too heavy to be taken in and out all the time and it was not long before the first garden chair appeared.

Windsor chair. Author: Sam Wilson. CC BY 2.0

The Windsor chair, originally called the Forest Chair, was designed in the early 18th century. The chair became instantly popular because it was very light and people began painting them green so that they would fit better in the surrounding environment. Originally designed as garden furniture, later on, Windsor chairs would be used in the interior as well, but in their original color.

A classic bench design by Edwin Lutyens. Author: Souren Meubels. CC BY-SA 3.0

Towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, gardens were becoming more and more popular and public gardens and parks were a common feature of every city. Outdoor seating was in high demand which resulted in the design of the park bench. In this period, the ornamental cast iron industry also started producing iron chairs and tables for outdoor use in different designs and patterns. The first Australian squatter chair was designed in the 19th century.

Green plastic garden furniture. Author: Frettie. CC BY 3.0

The oldest garden furniture in America is a wooden bench from the late 18th century called the “Almodington Bench,” made for the Almodington Plantation. It is on display at the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

Winston outdoor furniture – Seagrove. Author: Winston Furniture. CC BY-ND 2.0

In the middle of the 20th century, the garden was once again in the spotlight. People were gathering in outdoor areas for different occasions and garden furniture became a necessity. This period saw the introduction of new construction materials, such as plastic, which was cheap but not particularly durable. Yet plastic chairs and tables became part of almost every garden. Today, garden furniture is available in different designs, colors, and materials. Its basic function has remained the same, but over the years, it has evolved into something more sophisticated and comfortable.