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

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

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The furniture was originally made for their homes, but the Egyptians also used it outdoors for relaxing in the garden.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 made from stone, making them quite uncomfortable and heavy, yet this style of seating was commonly used in outdoor spaces.

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

While unearthing the ancient Roman town of Pompeii, archeologists discovered the oldest surviving examples of outdoor furniture in the gardens of these ancient houses.

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.

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 were mostly rectangular, but there are also U-shaped and L-shaped examples. They were made of wood planks or stone, and later brick or wattle, filled with soil.

Some were covered in turf only on the top, while others were planted with grass and herbs on all sides.

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, new style garden designs became fashionable.

Impressive fountains, topiaries, and colorful flower beds attracted people to return to the pleasures of spending time relaxing in the garden, drinking tea, playing musical instruments, and even playing games.

Bringing large, heavy and possibly rather expensive, furniture in and out of the house was so laborious and impractical that it wasn’t long before the first garden chair appeared.

Windsor chair. Author: Sam Wilson. CC BY 2.0

The enduring design of Windsor chair, originally known as the Forest Chair, was first produced in the early 18th century.

These chairs were a hit because they were very light and people began painting them green so that they would fit better in the surrounding environment.

Originally designed as garden furniture, Windsor chairs would later become popular for interior use as well, but in their original color.

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

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, gardens grew in popularity 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 known surviving item of 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.

By the mid-20th century, the garden was once again in the spotlight. Gathering in outdoor areas for different occasions had become commonplace and garden furniture became a necessity.

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

This period saw the introduction of new construction materials, such as plastic, which was cheap but not always durable.

Yet plastic chairs and tables became part of almost every garden. Today, garden furniture is available in different designs, colors, and materials.

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While the basic function of garden furniture has remained the same, over the years it has evolved into something more sophisticated and comfortable.