What is Industrial Furniture

What is Industrial Furniture

In the mid-90s, beginning overseas in Paris, France,  the interest in industrial design furniture and decor began to take hold among antique collectors and shop owners. At this time, industrial design was larger classified as being made of scrap-metal, typically scrap-metal with natural patina, a film over the metal due to oxidation over a period of time. Later, the style evolved to be characterized by a utilitarian flair finding beauty in aged woods, forged and welded metal, worn textures and a “used” or shabby appearance.


Antiquers like Gilles Oudin and Bernard Mouiren were complacent with the classic pieces they were buying and selling. Fortunately, they had a strong clientele within the artistic community and their fascination with industrial chic design grew in popularity, making these industrial chic furnishings sought after throughout France.


Following the industrial design revolution in Paris, France, the US, particularly in New York City, shop owners in tribeca began to sell industrial chic furniture and decor. This was both a new interior design trend for the time and an intelligent use of the huge quantities of accumulated from the Industrial history of North America. Industrial design was considered one of the best of the “upcycled” items that were sweeping the design community including original, “salvaged” furnishings and decor pieces. As with many popular design trends coveted by artists and designers, industrial style sparked nostalgia by taking a refreshing approach to different materials and embodying a piece of history from its appearance to where the materials were curated from.


As with many design trends, industrial chic style expanded around the world. Dealers from the US began exploring second hand markets in France, on the prowl for industrial classics.  While french designers began creating for industrial style US brands. The idea of “french design” in the US branched out from the cliche of red-checkered tablecloths, painted furniture and basketwork, transforming into a true appreciation for french ironworks and classic french design shapes.


While the beginnings of the trend that is  industrial chic design is rooted in Paris and New York City, the fundamentals, as in the actual appearance and ultimately the spirit of industrial design began in factories and garages. A common practice among factory workers  was called “side production” or “homers.” This was the practice of workers using materials and equipment from within the factory to make small items for their own personal use. A touch of rebellion was involved in this process, as using scraps and equipment from within the company was typically against regulations. However, many of these creations showcased the skill and artistry of the workers. Every piece created had a personal touch to them, encompassing the practices taught to them by the factory they worked in, the cultural and social influences of the time they were created in and the individual person's intention for their use.


For example, a dolls house dresser created in the 19th century in France was discovered, while the designer is unknown, the industrial chic furnishing has tiny hinged drawers and drawer handles. Its style is reflective of the same techniques used in full size furniture due to its bending, riveting, stamping and turning of its metal.


Social and political influence can be found in the earlier industrial designs. “Health and Safety” laws in france during the late 1800s to early 1900s gave importance to a padlock in securing locker doors and separating belongings in work environments. Aside from hygienic reasons, lockers were more of statement of privatization and compartmentalization of workers personal items. They were also a place for workers to bring their private life into their professional sphere. Many of these secured lockers held the personal creations made during work hours, union leaflets, small souvenirs, mattresses for sleeping on and even children that couldn’t be looked after elsewhere! Thus, we see sideboards, dressers and chests made of sheet metal ordained in locks and padlocks in modern day industrial design.


Another instance of this locker design was introduced in England and is considered to be one of the most iconic pieces of furniture representing the Industrial Revolution.  Strong boxes were originally created with the intention of keeping pharmaceuticals, cash ,patents and other important documents and items thoroughly protected. They were used in trade particularly through ships. Strongboxes has iron cladding, wrought iron keys, long nails, invisible locks and were often fireproof. They were highly sought after once industrial design grew in popularity and still influence contemporary industrial design.


Another iconic furnishings representative of the industrial revolution was the Voltaire Chair, a distinct piece of what is known as Arras furniture. Designed in France, the chair was typically featured in salons but was soon introduced to many parks and natural settings.  This was due to the amount of gardens and squares being created at the time and the artistic ironwork of manufacturer Glarris-Baldeans who used wrought iron, in semi-hollow and oblong shaped tubing to produce many furnishings in this fashion for outdoor use.  


Due to its durable and sturdy make and its already “worn” appearance, Industrial design furniture became a very popular choice for exterior design as well as interior design. It was used as personal outdoor furniture as well as in parks, gardens and on terraces.


Well known designer, Xavier Pauchard, created the Tolix Model A Chair. The Tolix chair actually came to be at the same time as the Multipls Chair, a metal chair which was fire-proof, light-weight,, non-perishable and stackable metal chair created during the 1920s. A distinct difference between the Tolix chair and Multipl chair are the legs, where the Multipl chair has a concave shape to them. Additionally, the Multipl chair was created by using 22 pieces of stamped sheet metal shaped and welded together. While there was a high demand for this chair by both individuals and businesses, the crafting of the chair remained artisan due to its considerable amount of crafting to create. Xavier Pauchards Tolix A chair, however, could be mass produced and its production process foreshadowed the “one-piece” ideal we see later in other mid-century modern design concepts such as with the moulded plastic chairs.


Continuing the creation of innovative interior and exterior industrial chic furnishings, Xavier Pauchard with son, Jean Pauchard produced the Model 9 Pedestal Table and A56 chair. These two designs were made of cast-iron but were more affordable than earlier, similar models created. In addition, the overall affordability, functionality, durability and aesthetic of their designs helped cafe terraces to become more profitable.


The Ideal Bookcase, designed by Theodore Scherf, is yet another industrial design furnishing created in the late 1880s intended for practical use during the time it was created. The design itself, in its rack system style, already existed in wood but adapted into fitting bookcases with metal. The Ideal Bookcase, resembled in part, the design of The Eiffel Tower in France, it had solid wooden shelves, flat arched iron struts with crossover reinforcements. It was open on all sides, which was perfect for the service industry of the time and made its way in institutes such public healthcare, public libraries, government ministries and railway companies. Some even felt that the circulation of air between and around the bookcase was actually safer and more hygienic than glass-fronted bookshelves that could potentially grow mould and was prone to insects.


Industrial chic lighting design shares a distinct characteristic we see in the other industrial chic furnishings. The diffuser-shade light also known as a “holophane” was created in the late 19th century as a solution to inefficient light for factory workers during their early morning and dusk shifts. The old daylight and gas lamps did not provide the light necessary. Antoine Blondel came up with an idea for prismatic light and created a round, glass lamp that was transparent and “harnessed.” The prismatic glass used in the lamps was versatile, meaning it could be used on many different mounts, in many different settings, thus making it both adaptable and efficient. When this lamp is displayed with a shade such as cast-iron, for example, it takes on the aesthetic quality of an industrial chic design.


Handling and storage boxes became another stiple of industrial design. Replacing the wicker basket and wooden container design with the production of storage boxes made of metal was for an increase in efficiency and production. The boxes themselves became measurements to gauge the amount a worker produced of a product in a given period of time. This measurement was a determination of a worker’s ability and led way to the concept of a fixed salary. These industrial storage boxes are similar to that of  Brillie Clock design which was a trademark of the industrial revolution. These clocks were run by electricity, not by the person responsible for winding it and found on the walls of factories, stations and schools. They had loud chimes and their rhythm was with that of the machines to increase workers efficiency and rhythm reinforcing the idea of punctuality and discipline.


Another example of a furnishing to regulate a worker's time and efficiency was the Nicolle Stool created in France. During the war, these all-metalled stools featured three stamped legs and a seat in the shape of a larger washer which designed for the manufacturers own use and for neighboring factories. However, once the war was over, a backrest was added and a fourth leg to promote comfort and to increase stability. The varying heights of the Nicolle Stool is what made it suitable and desirable for many different kinds of machinery. The Nicolle Stool were later replaced a flat-cork and wooden seat and a five legged base increasing comfort and thus defeating its original intention.


Fascinatingly enough, this design was sought out later by antique dealer, Jerome Lepert, who repurposed the Nicolle Stool. Now, it is featured in bright colors and featured in boutiques and interior magazines. This demonstrates the spirit of modernism, of taking the history of a piece and bringing it back life to fit the times in whichever way seems most beneficial to the individual and thus to the society as a whole but also in the essence of industrial chic, which is showcasing a time to remember by recreating or refurbishing the pieces as a memorial but not a time to relive unless they only extract the best possible influences from it. For example, we can see this design in art warehouses, where the desire to create is rampant but the evidence requires some persuasion or in bars and restaurants where first dates, random meet-ups occur or fast turn over is required for and wanted by the owners to promote sobriety, to decrease wasted time or to increase a purely monetary value.



Industrial furnishings and decor depicted from the era take on an interesting and highly symbolic role in contemporary thought. Their aesthetic appearance and functionality directly reflects the conditions of that period in history. Their worn-out, rough, mechanical and compartmentalized appearance is a reflection of the worker's physical and mental condition of the time. The need to make more products at a faster rate, the same way a machine would, to balance the cost of the machines themselves, took a toll on the factory workers. They became worn-out, hardened, rough the edges but extremely strong, durable and resilient.


The fact that many of these furnishings began to be featured in serene and comfortable places such as gardens, terraces and squares where the more privileged would relax and hob nob is another telling indicator of the dynamics of this period on history.  Here we can ascertain that the original industrial designs were created with not the actual workers best interest in mind but with the machinery and the production of what the machinery was creatings best interest in mind.


What was this interest at the time? This interest was war. Plain and simple. They extinguished the need for comfort, in fact they may have even created furnishings that would promote discomfort as an experiment in order to keep workers awake, thus increasing efficiency and perhaps promoting anxiety to increase pace. What we see today is industrial chic design looks and feels best in a commercial setting where you want a particular outcome, production, efficiency and turnover to be accelerated.


It would be premature to state that all industrial furnishings were created to serve the purpose of efficiency solely. Industrial chic chairs like the Flambo Chair and the Health Chair were specifically designed with comfort as well as functionality in mind. The Flambo Chair or typists chair, made its appearance 30 years after the typewriter was invented. The Flambo Chair featured a hairpin spring making it both  height-adjustable and capable of swiveling. Inventor of the acclaimed Flambo Chair was Henri Liber, also called “Monsieur Flambo,” who wanted to improve his design by adding a coil spring and a foam rubber cushion so the backrest was softer, cushier and flexible. The same inventors, Herman A. Sperlich and Johannes M. Uhlig, who invented the famous “mighty Ironrite,” a very powerful ironing machine built to be used when seated, also created the Health Chair. Hence its name, the Health Chair was designed to promote “scientifically correct” posture and was made to be used in conjunction with their ironing machine. The Health Chair featured an ergonomic backrest and seat made from comfortable materials such as veneered wood with an innovative steel “suspension” base. The design and materials were simplistic in style but provided extra cushion and comfort.


While many industrial design furnishings and decor feature a rough, rigid and seemingly “used” appearance, the Navy Chair is a strong exception to these hallmarks of industrial style. The Navy Chair was originally created using recycled, malleable aluminum and required 4 hours and a series of 50 different actions for its 77 step completion process. It was the perfect furnishings for the American military fleet due to its rust proof, resilient, ultralight and anti-magnetic qualities.The Navy Chair has a very plain appearance with sleek, clean-cut lines all in one shiny silver color and is considered to be an icon of industrial design.


A strikingly distinguishable industrial furnishing is known as the Flexi-tube Chair. The Flexi-tube Chair  was created by craftsman and heir to a dynasty of wheelwrights, Lucien Illy. The chair features bent steel tubes used for the frame and base with wooden slats for the backrest, seat and armrests. The curvature of the steel tubes resembled wheels on a fancy carriage especially the earlier versions which used black steel tubing. While this design quality of the chair made it difficult to market because it was heavy and couldn’t stack, the same quality is what made it prized among wealthier buyers and higher end establishments due to its originality and flexibility.


Industrial chic interior and exterior design ranges from having a factory warehouse, machinery appearance to a rural yet still mechanical style. Many of the industrial chic pieces are characterized by durable and strong materials like steel, aluminum and wood. Some industrial furnishings appear to have a colorful patina or varnished and rusty finish giving them that old and “used” antique facade.  While others look brand new but still give that rugged, mechanical impression. An important commonality between all industrial chic furniture and decor is the reflective nature of the time period it was created in as each piece individually represents a different faction occurring whether it be socially, culturally, militarily or politically.


The historical “industrial” period characterized by efficiency, production, streamlining, timing and the relationship between man and machine was a result of necessity and the furnishings made were to serve this purpose. However, what they orchestrate beautifully is how the relationship between man and machine was capable of coexisting and functioning at a high capacity without attempting to turn man into machine. Industrial chic home and commercial furnishings can be purchased from several highly rated stores as this historical style continues to grow in popularity in personal homes, restaurants, hotels and galleries throughout the world.