The A-Z of furniture Terminology to know when buying at auction

The A-Z of furniture: Terminology to know when buying at auction

From applique and back splats to veneering and wingbacks, an essential glossary of furniture terms — with examples previously sold at Christie's

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M
N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

A

Abattant: A term used to describe a drop-down flap often seen in the French style of the secretary desk, secrétaire à abattant, concealing drawers and shelves within.

Antique: A piece of furniture or object that is more than 100 years old.

A Regence ormolu ten-light chandelier, possibly south European, c. 1725. Sold for $50,000 on 19 October 2021, Online
A Regence ormolu ten-light chandelier, possibly south European, c. 1725. Sold for $50,000 on 19 October 2021, Online

Applique: A term for a category of light which can be affixed to a wall. 

A pair of late George III cut-class two-branch wall lights, c. 1790

A pair of late George III cut-class two-branch wall lights, c. 1790

Apron: A decorative element joining the surface of a chair or table with the legs.

Armchair: An armchair can be any chair with arms. However, there are two different kinds: the fauteuil, with open sides, and the bergère, with closed sides. (See Fauteuil and Bergère)

A pair of George II solid mahogany hall armchairs, mid-18th century. Sold for $18,750 on 19 October 2021, Online
A pair of George II solid mahogany hall armchairs, mid-18th century. Sold for $18,750 on 19 October 2021, Online

Armoire: A tall standing wardrobe or closet, often used to store clothes, which can feature one to three doors and sometimes a mirrored panel. 

Arrow foot: A type of chair foot that ends in a tapered cylinder, often seen in the 18th century.

Art Deco: A style popular from the 1920s to the 1930s characterised by bold geometric designs. 

B

Back splat: The vertical piece of wood running from the frame of a chair to the base of the backrest. 

Ball foot: A fully spherical foot on a piece of furniture.

Ball and claw foot: A cast or carved foot consisting of a ball covered by an animal’s claw, in English furniture often that of a lion or a bird. The design is thought to have originated in China, where a dragon’s claw would represent the strong grip of the emperor. 

A set of three Irish George II mahogany side chairs, c. 1740. Sold for $1,875 on 19 October 2021, Online
A set of three Irish George II mahogany side chairs, c. 1740. Sold for $1,875 on 19 October 2021, Online

Baroque: A decorative style from the late 16th century through to the 18th century characterised by the use of bold sculptural forms, dynamic surfaces and elaborate ornament.

Barrel chair: Also known as a tub chair, a barrel chair has a round upholstered seat, and arms forming a continuous line with the backrest.

Bas relief: A form of carving or moulding in which the design projects out from the flat surface of the background.

An Empire ormolu and patinated bronze clock, c. 1810
An Empire ormolu and patinated bronze clock, c. 1810

Bentwood: A kind of wood that has been heated and shaped to become curved. 

Biedermeier: Encompasses the period between 1815 and 1848 in Central Europe. Influenced by Napoleonic styles, the furniture was produced in Germany and Austria, with simpler designs that often incorporated local timber. 

Bergère: A kind of upholstered armchair with closed sides that first became popular in the 18th century. 

Bevel: An edge that has been cut at a slant, often seen on mirrors.

A north Italian clear glass mirror, probably Venice, c. 1725. Sold for $12,500 on 19 October 2021, Online
A north Italian clear glass mirror, probably Venice, c. 1725. Sold for $12,500 on 19 October 2021, Online

Blockfront: A kind of chest divided into three parts in which the middle part is set back from the sides.

Boiserie: A French word for panelling, generally highly decorative.

Bombé: A term used to describe the bulging outwards of a piece of furniture.

Bowfront: A chest with a convex front.

Bracket foot: A right-angled foot shaped like a bracket.

Bronze: An alloy primarily consisting of copper and tin, generally used for sculpture but also as the base metal for ormolu and furniture mounts.

Bun foot: A ball foot that has been flattened slightly, like a bun.

Bureau: A chest of drawers often used in a bedroom, sometimes combined with a fold-down desk. 

C

Cabinet: Cabinets come in many forms, from the industrial to the ornate, and usually consist of drawers and shelves; some feature glass doors for the display of objects. 

A George III ormolu-mounted and inlaid mahogany and tulipwood banded secretaire bookcase, in the manner of Ince & Mayhew, c. 1780
A George III ormolu-mounted and inlaid mahogany and tulipwood banded secretaire bookcase, in the manner of Ince & Mayhew, c. 1780

Cabriole: A kind of leg that curves out from the seat of a chair or base of a table before curving into a foot in a narrow S shape. The name comes from a type of ballet jump in which the dancer leaps into the air with one leg forward.

Caning: A technique using the rattan or bamboo plant to create an interwoven seat, back or side of a chair. 

A pair of Regence beechwood caned fauteuils, c. 1720. Sold for $2,500 on 19 October 2021, Online
A pair of Regence beechwood caned fauteuils, c. 1720. Sold for $2,500 on 19 October 2021, Online

Castor: A small wheel that allows a piece to be moved easily.

Chaise longue: A long low chair for reclining, with a back and single armrest to one side.
 

Chest on chest: Two chests of drawers stacked together, with the narrower piece on top.

Chest on stand: A chest of drawers on legs.

Cheval mirror: A freestanding mirror that can be tilted to change the angle of reflection.

Chiffonier: A tall chest of drawers often used to store linen or needlework, sometimes topped by a shelf or mirror.

Chippendale: For Thomas Chippendale, one of the leading cabinetmakers of 18th-century Britain. The term also refers to a style of 18th-century American furniture.

An early George III giltwood mirror, c. 1760. Sold for $20,000 on 19 October 2021, Online
An early George III giltwood mirror, c. 1760. Sold for $20,000 on 19 October 2021, Online

Claw foot: A foot carved to resemble an animal’s claw (see also Ball and claw foot).

Club chair: A chair with a low back, often upholstered in leather.

Coffee table: A long low table to be placed in front of a set of chairs or a sofa.

Commode: Not to be confused with a chair containing a chamber pot, the traditional commode is a cabinet with doors or drawers, often highly ornamental.

Console table: A narrow table that is designed to be placed against a wall.

An Italian giltwood console table, Genoa, second quarter 18th century
An Italian giltwood console table, Genoa, second quarter 18th century

Credenza: A low sideboard with doors, used for storage or for serving food. The name comes from the Italian word for ‘belief’; in the 16th century, the act of credenza entailed the tasting of one’s food by a servant to ensure it was not poisoned.

Cresting: The carved decoration on the top rail of a piece of seat furniture or mirror.

D

Damask: A lustrous fabric with a reversible pattern and figured weave, often of linen, cotton or silk, which can be used for upholstery.

Davenport: A narrow writing desk with a sloped top above drawers.

Daybed: A long sofa, similar to a chaise longue, that can double up as a bed, often with a small headboard at either end. 

Decoupage:  Derived from the French, a term for applied cut out paper decoration glued to the surface of objects, often flowers or figures.

Dentil moulding:  A form of decoration of evenly spaced blocks often used on a cornice. From the Latin for tooth, dens.

Dresser: A type of sideboard, often with shelves above drawers for the display of plates. 

Drop-leaf: A kind of table with extendable parts that hang by its sides when not in use.

E

Ebonising: The process by which wood is stained dark to resemble ebony. 

Empire: A style dating to Napoleon’s reign (1804-1814), characterised by Egyptian, Greek and Roman motifs.

A pair of empire ormolu and patinated bronze ewers, attributed to Claude Galle, c. 1805
A pair of empire ormolu and patinated bronze ewers, attributed to Claude Galle, c. 1805

Escutcheon: The term for the plate of metal that surrounds a keyhole, often decorative. From scutum, the Latin for shield.

Etagère: A piece of furniture with open shelves used for the display of ornaments.

F

Fauteuil: An armchair with open sides, usually upholstered on the seat and the back, leaving the wooden frame exposed.

Fluting: Vertical grooves that form an elliptical-shaped recess, often employed on columns.
 

Frieze: A broad, horizontal band that is often decorated with painting or sculpture.

Front rail: The piece of wood that runs between the front two legs of a chair.

Four-poster bed: A bed with high posts at each corner and sometimes a canopy.

G

Gallery: An ornamental wood or metal rail around a piece of furniture.

Georgian: Term referring to the artistic output in the decorative arts during the reigns of the first four members of the British house of Hanover, between the accession of George I in 1714 and the death of George IV in 1830.

Gesso: From the Italian for chalk, a material that can be moulded into elaborate designs for cornices and frames, etc.

Gilding: A technique of applying gold leaf to wood for decoration.

A pair of north Italian giltwood tabourets, c. 1750-55. Sold for $8,750 on 19 October 2021, Online
A pair of north Italian giltwood tabourets, c. 1750-55. Sold for $8,750 on 19 October 2021, Online

Gillows: A firm founded by Robert Gillows in 1703 in Lancaster, known for its elegant designs and superior craftsmanship. Its pieces are still highly sought-after by collectors today. 

H

Hassock: An upholstered footstool or short bench.

Herringbone: A way of using veneer as decoration, also known as feather banding, whereby two strips of veneer are laid at a 90-degree angle around the edge of a piece of furniture to create a herringbone-patterned border.

I

Inlay: A technique of using a contrasting material to create a decorative pattern on the surface of a piece of furniture. 

J

Japanning: A technique developed in Europe that imitates the lacquering applied to Asian furniture.

Jardinière: A pot for holding plants, often large and ceramic for outdoor use, but can also be a more elongated shape for indoor use. 

K

Kneehole desk: A type of desk with a recess in the front to make space for one’s knees. 

An Italian tulipwood, amaranth and parquetry desk, late 18th century. Sold for $4,750 on 19 October 2021, Online
An Italian tulipwood, amaranth and parquetry desk, late 18th century. Sold for $4,750 on 19 October 2021, Online

L

Lacquer: A high-gloss varnish used in Chinese and Japanese furniture.

Loveseat: A small sofa designed for two people, often made in an S shape so that a conversation can be held face-to-face. 

Lowboy: A low side table, usually with three drawers and cabriole legs.

M

Marquetry: A style of inlay that uses different types of veneered wood or other materials placed together to form a pictorial pattern. Marquetry can be contrasted with parquetry, which forms a geometric pattern. 

N

Neoclassical: A style of design that revives classical motifs, popularised from the second half of the 18th century.  

Nesting tables: A set of small tables that fit inside each other.

O

Occasional table: A catch-all term used to describe small freestanding tables such as coffee or side tables.  

Ormolu: Historic technique for gilding bronze using mercury, often finely chased. 

A Louis XV ormolu cartel clock, second quarter 18th century. Sold for $17,500 on 19 October 2021, Online
A Louis XV ormolu cartel clock, second quarter 18th century. Sold for $17,500 on 19 October 2021, Online

Ottoman: Usually a low upholstered stool that can be used as a foot rest and sometimes also for storage, adopted from similar styles in the Ottoman Empire.

P

Pad foot: A kind of foot often found on cabriole legs that ends in a flat oval disk.

Palmette: A decorative motif derived from classical architecture loosely resembling an open palm leaf, often used interchangeably with the term anthemion.

Parquetry: Similar to marquetry, parquetry is a technique used on floors and furniture that contrasts wood to create a geometric pattern. 

Pedestal table: A table supported by a single leg. 

Pembroke table: A drop-leaf table often with a drawer and twin flaps to the long sides.

Pie-crust edge: A scalloped motif either carved or moulded on the edge of a table.

Pietra dura: A form of mosaic decoration using semi-precious stones, mostly seen on tabletops.

Pliant: A form of folding x-framed stool, derived from ancient forms and often associated with royalty. 

R

Reeding: The convex equivalent of fluting, reeding comprises parallel lines of rounded moulding.

Regency: A term referring to English furniture made between 1800-1830 in a style promoted by George, Prince of Wales, who reigned as George IV.

Rococo: An elaborate style of furniture that followed the Baroque in the 18th century, characterised by scroll and foliate motifs. 

S

Secretaire: A French term for a standing chest of drawers with a drop-down writing desk (see Abattant).

Shoe: The horizontal section of the back seat rail of a chair that supports the bottom of the splat.

Sideboard: A long cabinet often used in dining rooms for serving food and as storage.

Side chair: A traditional dining chair with no arms that would fit in at the side of a dining table. 

Slat back: A chair back consisting of vertical slats instead of a single panel.

Sofa: An upholstered long seat with back and arms.

Sofa table: A high, small table to be placed alongside a sofa with twin flaps to the short ends.

Spindle back: A chair with turned spindles instead of a single panel as a back rest.

Straw marquetry: A form of marquetry that uses straw instead of wood to create a contrasting pattern on the surface of a piece. 

Stretcher: Often forming an H, X or Y shape, the stretcher runs between the legs of a chair or table to reinforce the structure.

A French ormolu-mounted mahogany gueridon, late 19th century
A French ormolu-mounted mahogany gueridon, late 19th century

T

Tallboy: A tallboy, or chest on chest, is a high chest of drawers.

Term: A pillar surmounted by a carved male or female bust, usually armless, that tapers towards the base. Also known as a herm, after the posts bearing the carved head of Hermes that were used as boundary markers in ancient Greece.

A French giltwood side table, the legs c. 1720 and reused. Sold for $10,000 on 19 October 2021, Online
A French giltwood side table, the legs c. 1720 and reused. Sold for $10,000 on 19 October 2021, Online

Trestle table: A table supported by an upright at each end.

Tub chair: See Barrel chair.

U

Upholstery: The padded covering on furniture, usually made of horsehair, foam or springs and covered in decorative fabric or leather. 

A pair of George III giltwood armchairs, 19th century. Sold for $6,875 on 19 October 2021, Online
A pair of George III giltwood armchairs, 19th century. Sold for $6,875 on 19 October 2021, Online

V

Veneering: The technique of applying thin layers of wood to a piece of furniture. 

Victorian: Refers to the period coinciding with the reign of Queen Victoria of Britain from 1837 to 1901.

Volute: A spiral scroll characteristic of Ionic capitals, often used as a decorative form on arm rests and feet in furniture.


W

Webbing: A technique of interweaving elastic or fabric to provide support to an upholstered arm, back or seat.

Wicker: A term given to pieces woven from rattan, willow or reed.

Windsor chair: A classic design with a curved top and spindle back. 

Wingback: A chair with wing-like side panels protruding from the top of the backrest and above the arms in order to shield the sitter from draughts or the heat of a fire. Also known as a bergère à oreilles, or a chair ‘with ears’.

X

Y

Z

Zitan: a tropical hardwood ranging in colour from dark-purplish brown to reddish brown, and considered, together with huanghuali, the most precious and luxurious material used in Chinese furniture.