The British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (BIFMO) project is a collaboration between the Furniture History Society and the Institute of Historical Research with the goal of developing and making accessible the history of furniture as a material, cultural, social and economic subject of study. The project encompasses research, resources, training and events to engage with the global community of academics, students, scholars, genealogists and the art trade.

This website forms the hub for the project’s various strands and phases, and its focal point is the BIFMO database: a resource providing information on furniture makers, their skills and connections, and information on the history of the trade, from the early modern period to the present day. In the current first prototype phase of the project, the database focuses on information drawn from two sources – a digital re-publication of Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert eds. The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 (1986), and the membership records of The Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers from 1640 to 1720 – but future phases of the project will make available information drawn from many different kinds of historical sources. The database is freely accessible to all.

The Institute of Historical Research and the Furniture History Society were both founded in the twentieth century, the IHR in 1921 by A. E. Pollard, to promote the study of history and an appreciation of the past among academics and the general public in Britain and abroad, and the FHS in 1964 to study the history of furniture both domestic and internationally: its craftsmen, designers, tradesmen and patrons. Both institutions share the common goal supporting scholarly research and broadening an appreciation of the past to wider audiences.

Future Phases of BIFMO

The next phase of the BIFMO project will enhance the database with historical information about furniture makers and the industry in which they operated, developed through a number of research initiatives led by the IHR and the FHS, and drawing upon the expertise, resources and internationally important collections of colleagues, collectors and curators around the world. The fruits of this scholarship will be used to expand the scope and scale of the data available via BIFMO. They will also be used to inform the ways in which the BIFMO website can be developed to provide more sophisticated access to the information held in the database, through improved search functionality, thematic quantitative analyses, data visualisations and so on.

New research will allow for the updating and expansion of existing biographical entries of the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 (1986) by leading furniture historians, using published and unpublished material written over the past thirty-one years. Membership records for the Joiners’ Company will be extended to include Company records up to 1900.

Subsequently this new research will also enable the project to locate and document undiscovered furniture makers. Through a series of case studies and mapping of networks, this research will examine the furniture trade - the suppliers, the manufacturers, their organising structures, their clientele, the material they produced and the services they provided. A holistic approach will be taken by combining the methodologies of furniture, art, material, and cultural history, with those of design, social, economic, political and urban history, to broadly examine the British and Irish furniture industry and the people it employed. Sources such as inhabitants’ lists, tax assessments, and nineteenth-century census records provide information that will provide the basis for illustrating the social and commercial networks involved in the trade; and analytical case studies will take networks and investigate them in their times and places through the interrogation of trade-related sources (including parish records, livery company and trade society accounts, inventories, trade directories, port records, tradesmen’s accounts, wills, personal correspondence, and country house archives).

The period covered saw the social and cultural face of British and Irish society develop profoundly, with trades like furniture-making both driving and responding to change. To significantly enlarge our understanding of how the trade interacted at all levels of society, the project will consider the ways in which it was organised, in terms of production, supply and consumption, and also in terms of self-sustaining regulation: how artisans and tradesmen and women interacted and transmitted knowledge and skills, to keep a pace of rapid and constant transformations in the designs and styles of British and Irish furniture; how technical advancements, demographic changes, and societal shifts altered the methods and organisation of manufacture, and how retail practices functioned and were adapted to meet consumers expectations and demands.