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The Ultimate Furniture-Buying Guide: A Four-Century Tour

  • If you're knocked out by great design, take a seat on this art deco fainting couch.

    If you're knocked out by great design, take a seat on this art deco fainting couch.  (Poike)

  • Art nouveau style

    Art nouveau style  (Francesco Scatena)

  • Chippendale side chair

    Chippendale side chair

One of the most enjoyable and satisfying parts of owning a home is filling it with furniture you adore. No argument there. But it's easy to get overwhelmed by the virtually endless number of choices. With so many sofas and tables to pick from, which style strikes your fancy? Well, first you need to understand the definitions and the terminology.

Look no further than this installment of our Learning the Lingo series. From Chippendale to Mid-Century Modern, here's a crash course on the past four centuries' worth of furnishing trends so you know the back story on every stool and nightstand you might encounter at any furniture boutique or flea market.

Louis XIV (1600s)

Pronounced "LOO-ee Ka-TORZ," this ornate style of furniture is named for the French king who built Versailles. So, as only fitting for a palace, these furnishings feature lavishly carved wood that's gilded, lacquered, or embellished up the wazoo. If you're on the prowl for sleek modernism, this ain't it. Even if you haven't visited France, you can see later incarnations of the style on-screen in films like "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Marie Antoinette."

Chippendale (late 1700s)

No, not those Chippendales. These furnishings are named after the British designer Thomas Chippendale, who made a name for himself for polished wood furniture with brass fixtures that is graceful and decoratively carved -- but significantly less ornate than French furniture of the same period. Two features associated with Chippendale are "cabriole" legs (which are curved, and somewhat resemble animal legs) and "ball and claw" feet ending in a claw grasping a glass ball.

Fun fact for design nerds (you know who you are): When this style was christened Chippendale, it marked the first time that an English furniture style was named after somebody other than a king or queen. Do with this information what you will.

Colonial (1700s)

Early Americans had plenty of wood, so they made plenty of furniture -- rough-hewn though it may have been due to lack of sophisticated tools, as well as to our Puritan influence, which valued simplicity. At most, shallow carvings of rosettes and leaves may decorate flat areas, such decorated elements are called Kerbschnitt. Gesundheit!

Shaker (1800s)

If you thought Colonial furniture was rough around the edges, meet the Shakers -- members of a religious sect dedicated to simple and humble living who also believed that their furniture should aesthetically reflect their values. Since they even considered metal hardware too much ornamentation, Shaker bureaus and desks feature wooden mushroom-shaped drawer pulls. Probably the most recognizable Shaker style is a tall "ladder-back" chair with rungs and a woven seat.

Mission (1900s)

By the early 20th century, mass production of furniture had begun. But many homeowners gravitated instead to the hand-made designs of the Mission movement (which has nothing to do with Spanish missions, by the way).

It's also known as the Craftsman or Arts and Crafts movement, and styles were bigger and heavier than Shaker, typically with metal fittings and leather or simple cloth, as the upholstery of choice, along with lamps or windows of stained glass. The pre-eminent designer of this furniture, Gustav Stickley, was the artisanal hipster of his era, and the Stickley Company still creates furniture today.

Art Nouveau (1900s)

Art Nouveau design used beauty as an antidote to the incipient machine age and embraced embellishments without apology. Using curving lines and intricate patterns, Art Nouveau furniture often evokes nature, with flower and plant motifs, and is likely to have a polished or varnished finish. The most famous example of this European-based aesthetic isn't furniture, but rather the lavish Paris Metro entrances that feature sinuously curving plant and flower designs.

Art Deco (1920s -- 1930s)

Still the most glamorous interior style, Art Deco design captured the optimism and elegance of the roaring '20s. Characterized by clean lines, often with a geometric feel, it typically used luxurious materials like exotic wood (sometimes inlaid with ivory or ebony), marble, metal and lacquer. The quickest way to school yourself in Art Deco style: Binge-watch Hollywood "drawing room" classics from the 1930s, when Deco was at the peak of its influence.

Bauhaus (1920s -- 1940s)

This game-changing school of design (literally a school) sprung up in Germany between the World Wars with the philosophy that architecture and furniture should be treated as art, but should also be optimally functional. Bauhaus is probably best known now for its still-fashionable chairs, like Mies van der Rohe's tufted leather Barcelona chair and Marcel Breuer's leather-and-steel Wassily armchair.

Danish Modern (1930 -- 1950s)

Modernist Danes (along with some Swedes and Finns) created most of the 20th century's most iconic furniture styles, many of which are still in production today -- both in officially licensed versions and in cheaper knock-offs. Some of the better-known examples are Arne Jacobsen's Egg chair, Hans Wegner's Wishbone chair and Poul Henningsen artichoke lamp. Danish Modern design is known for clean, curving lines with a minimalist aesthetic and a futuristic spirit.

Mid-Century Modern (1940s -- 1960s)

An American outgrowth of Bauhaus and Scandinavian modern design, Mid-Century Modern furniture was designed to decorate the new style of architecture of the same name -- those low-slung, glass-walled houses that dot the Hollywood Hills and the Palm Springs desert, and their Midwestern counterparts. American Mid-Century Modern pieces tend to be a bit bigger and more relaxed than European designs of the same era, due to the more spacious dimensions of homes in American's West. Two iconic and defining designs of this era are Charles and Ray Eames's leather lounge chair and ottoman and Henry Bertoia's Diamond Chair.

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