A designer begins his creation by visualizing an object and moulding the material to fit the image in his mind. A buyer sees the beauty and functionality of the final product and assesses how it will appear in his home. The furniture finds its place in the world and becomes an indispensable part of an individual’s life. From raw material to finished object, the story of furniture is one that has evolved over the centuries to bring works of art and utility into being.

By Ayesha Inoon


In ages past, there was an emphasis on furniture as ornaments and the length of time a piece took to be created was often a measure of its worth and desirability. However, during the first half of the 20th Century a new philosophy emerged, shifting the focus to function and accessibility. The forms of furniture evolved from visually heavy to visually light and new and innovative materials such as steel and plywood began to replace traditional wood and heavy fabrics. Technology and art combined with the unrestricted imaginations of designers to result in novel creations that were both aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian.

In the 1920’s Marcel Breuer, one of the masters of modernism, pioneered the design of tubular steel furniture. The first bent tubular steel chair, the Wassily Chair, named after the artist Wassily Kadinsky was Breuer’s brainchild. Later in his career he also ventured into the creation of innovative and experimental wooden furniture. Other trailblazing designs include the Eames Lounge Chair, the Barcelona Chair and Noguchi’s coffee table.

Designed by husband and wife team, Charles and Ray Eames, the Eames Chair was a low-seated easy chair that used the technology for molding plywood in its creation. Coming out of an age where furniture was heavy and intricate the Eames design was a striking new way of looking at furniture and furniture design.

Similarly, the Barcelona Chair, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich is an icon of the modern movement, with its frame being formed from a seamless piece of stainless steel. The Noguchi Table, described in the original  Herman Miller catalogue as “sculpture for use” and “design for production”, comprises a wooden base composed of two identical pieces of curved wood and a heavy plate glass top. It became a celebrity in the world of design for its use of biomorphism and continues to be a sought-after classic today.

Scandinavian furniture design was also at the vanguard of this new movement, with the concept “beautiful things make your life better” being highly regarded. Today, the term ‘Scandinavian design’ and all that it stands for – beautiful, simple, clean designs, inspired by nature and accessible to all – continues to be an inspiration to furniture designers around the world.

During the first half of the 20th Century a new philosophy emerged, shifting the focus to function and accessibility

In Sri Lanka, while the heavy teak and mahogany furniture of yore with intricate carvings will always be icons of culture and tradition, designs have given way to lighter, more economical and functional products in keeping with modern lifestyles.

Describing the design process from the moment of conception, Furniture Designer Roshal Wickramasinghe says that it is important to understand the needs and personality of the client that one is designing for. While we all might have an idea of what a table or chair looks like, the intended usage of the object – to write, store, eat, work or relax at – influences the initial creative stage. As he details the various pieces he has created for the holiday home of a client, he explains that in addition to the establishment of a pleasing environment the client also wished to keep costs at a minimum without compromising on style.

“I achieved this mainly with the efficient usage of materials,” says Roshal, explaining that he used materials left over from construction to achieve the finishing touches in many of the furnishings. For instance, the coffee table had been crafted out of leftover coconut timber and the table top with a spare granite tile from the bathroom. Old pot handles were transformed into door handles, which also evoked the detailing of traditional doors from the Kandyan era. Since he worked on the complete interior design of the house the total effect, along with the furniture, was one of simplicity and elegance.

“It is contemporary, modern design with a Sri Lankan touch,” he says, adding that he also worked closely with the Architect who designed the home to achieve a holistic ambience that takes the architectural aspects of the house into consideration.

Yet another aspect of furniture designing is that of furniture for those with special needs. Roshal describes a project where he designed furniture for a differently abled young girl with limited mobility. Having assessed her living space and the way she needed to move within it on her electrical wheelchair, he set about creating furniture that would give her the greatest ease of access such as a curved table and a bed that would enable her to easily slide on and off the wheelchair. “Designs must be beautiful but practical too,” he says, summing up in a nutshell the modern philosophy of design.

Today contemporary furniture designers and manufacturers continue to evolve design, seeking new materials with which to produce unique pieces that focus on minimalism and lightness of form while exuding elegance and sophistication. Ultimately the age old definition of good architecture as that which creates new visual experiences while achieving optimum functionalism, has extended to and is being reinterpreted in the field of furniture design as well.