The Islamic world, and especially the Middle East, developed its own traditions of furniture making. Many of its highly decorated products have found their way into non-Islamic markets.
Any European travelling to a Middle
Eastern country any time before World War 2 would notice two things about the furniture; how few pieces there were, and the wonderful, intricate decorations that covered every inch of them.
There would have been no bedsteads, cupboards or chests of drawers; no chairs, sofas or dining tables. Rooms were filled instead with a rich spread of carpets, cushions and rugs as life took place mainly at floor level. Food was served from small side tables no more than
There were low, box-like chests for storing clothes and, where appropriate, pointed stands on which to place a turban. Another specialized type of furniture was a folding, X-shaped Koran stand, where the Islamic holy book was placed for reading.
The Koran discourages the making of realistic images of people and animals, and Islamic decoration consists solely of abstract and semi-abstract patterns. In furniture, these patterns were created by means of inlay. Dark tortoiseshell, iridescent mother-of-pearl, ivory, bone and ebonized wood were the commonest materials. Inlaid outlines, known as stringing, emphasized the outline of a piece. Prayers or exhortations in Arabic script were often included in the designs.
From the middle of the 19th century, there was a strong Western presence in countries such as Syria and Egypt, and workmen in these countries turned out pieces such as writing desks, armchairs and sofas, made on Victorian lines but full of inlaid detailing.
Richly decorated and unusually styled, furniture made in the various Islamic traditions of the Middle East can bring a wonderfully sunny and exotic touch to rooms in the drabbest of climates, particularly when it is combined with the colourful textiles of the region.
Of all Islamic furniture seen in Europe today, it is the small polygonal tables that are most often offered for sale at auction or in the shops of antiques dealers. A certain amount of European-style furniture, along with some purely
Islamic pieces such as chests, Koran boxes and Koran stands, can also be found. Carved panels, screens, doors and shutters, as well as separate pieces of decorative work removed from their original setting, also turn up frequently in auctions.
Prices tend to follow the quality of the decoration. The most
highly valued designs are those that are symmetrical with the shape of the piece itself; a hexagonal table, for instance, would have a pattern based on six-fold symmetry, while a rectangular one would have a pattern in twofold or four-fold symmetry.
LOOKING AFTER ISLAMIC FURNITURE
Intricate inlay can be cleaned with a cotton bud dipped in silver polish, white spirit (for shell) or wood polish as appropriate. Take care that you don't stain some of the inlay materials by using unsuitable cleaners. If in doubt, don't use the cleaner.
Inlaid pieces may warp and come loose if the furniture is regularly subjected to changes in temperature and humidity. They should not be left in conservatories, for instance.