Arabic furniture design originated in the early Islamic world of the Middle East, gradually spreading westward and eastward to the present day, where its influence is found in all parts of the world. In fact, the word “sofa” actually comes from the Arabic word “suffah,” meaning "a long bench."
Richly decorated and unusual, traditional Arabic furniture can bring an exotic touch to any room, especially when combined with the colourful textiles of the region.
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Traditional furniture in the early Islamic world was used relatively little, and life took place mainly at floor level. People sat on divans, which were primarily cushions with brocade covers arranged around the walls of the reception room. Tables were not commonly used because food was served on brass or copper trays with folding supports, and before the 18th century, chairs and armchairs were for only important people. Customary pieces of furniture included chests for storing clothes, textiles or possibly jewellery and a rich spread of carpets and rugs.
One of the most distinctive aspects of traditional pieces of Arabic furniture is the intricate decoration that covers them. Because the Koran forbids the use of images of either people or animals, Islamic decoration consists almost exclusively of abstract and semi-abstract patterns, and traditional Arabic furniture is customarily heavily decorated with Arabic script, plant designs and geometric patterns–all intricately designed. These patterns or mosaics are created by means of inlay through a process known as “intarsia.”
During the intarsia process, the desired pattern is carved onto the surface of the furniture piece, and the gaps created are filled. Different kinds of wood, such as walnut, rosewood, lemon-wood and peach-wood, as well as iridescent mother of pearl, bone and tin are traditionally the commonest materials used. These are cut to the exact dimensions of the gaps and attached with adhesive to create a smooth surface. The finished product is polished and varnished.
People clean the inlay by using a cotton bud dipped in appropriate cleaning materials. For wood, they use a suitable wood polish. To keep mother of pearl clean, they wipe with a damp, smooth cloth, in particular a small soft cloth to avoid catching the edges. Using unsuitable cleaners can stain the inlay materials, and soaking the inlay in water could loosen the glue holding the inlay in place.
Placement of inlaid furniture is key. Inlaid pieces may warp and come loose if the furniture is regularly exposed to changes in temperature and humidity.
Examples of traditional Arabic furniture are found in auctions and in the shops of antiques dealers. Items offered for sale most often are small, polygonal tables, but chests, Koran boxes and Koran stands are also fairly common, as are carved panels, screens, doors and shutters. Prices vary according to the quality of decoration.
It is also possible to buy Islamic furniture through speciality shops advertising on the internet, although the high craftsmanship involved means that the prices are usually high. As an example, a solid walnut polygonal table with mother of pearl intarsia and dimensions of about 11 inches diameter by 18 inches high priced at £224 in June 2010.
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