Furniture From The Roof Of The World

Since Tibetan Furniture started making it’s way to the West via Nepal and China in the 1990’s, a fascination has arisen among many (myself included) with this furniture tradition from the Land of  Snows.

Although the technical construction is quite basic (tongue-and-groove or simple mortise-and-tenon) and made from pine or cedar wood which bears the  physical scars of the chisel, it’s the lavishly  painted surfaces which draw us into this piece of culture heritage hitherto unknown to many outside the region of origin.

The variants of Tibetan furniture can be broken down in three broad types which include low tables, chests and cabinets. Let us consider each on individually.

Low tables (choktse) are generally agreed to be the most widely used of any furniture type cutting across all social groups which included monks, officials and the general population.  These tables were used for food and drink, desks by government officials and as prayer tables by monks and the laity.  An additional type call a pegam (book box) was used to read religious texts but in my opinion is more suitably categorized as a cabinet which we will cover later.

The two types of low table generally encountered are folding and the fixed leg variety which can both be painted as well as carved to a greater or lesser degree depending on the example and may or may not possess a drawer.

Of the two, the fixed leg type in cabriole style seems to be older with stylistic roots dating back to the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Contemporary Tibetans additionally use a square table (instead of rectangular)  which  is approximately the same height as the rectangular table and usually has a drawer.

Chests (gam) literally meaning box in Tibetan, were used as storage trunks either made from leather or leather covered wood with sloping or straight sides.

The sloping type often features a scalloped design lid or decorative trim that echos the same contours as a scalloped lid. The actual lid is a flat, hinged panel on the top that can extend the full width or merely a small hatch opening.

The straight type has a lid that is always flush with the chest body and is hinged with two iron rings at the back of the chest.

The design layout often includes a medallion in the centre which can feature any variety of items including a side or forward facing dragon, a bowl of gems, a zeeba, birds, tigers and more. This is usually over a textile derived pattern which to  a greater or lesser degree is based on the Chinese silk lampas of the the 15th century. However, some earlier examples from the 17th century feature the textile pattern alone without any medallion.

Cabinets were a rather late development and seem to show up in larger numbers only from the 18th century onwards. I prefer to refer to cabinets by the the amount of painted front panels they have as opposed to the number of doors. These panels can range from as little as two (which tend to be for religious purposes)  and as many as thirteen. A thirteen panel cabinet however is seldom seem and you are more likely to encounter an eleven panel one instead.

Painted themes are probably the most varied in this furniture type and can include almost anything from a purely floral design with no religious connotations whatsoever to deities at the opposite end of the spectrum. One unique theme that is rarely shown on any other type of furniture  is that of Chinese personages which I have only seem in examples from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Although I have tried to include relevant details as much as possible, this is only the very briefest of introductions and I have included the following resources should this area of collecting stimulate your interest.

Resources available to learn more about Tibetan Furniture include Wooden Wonders: Tibetan Furniture In Secular And Religious Life edited by David Kamansky from Serindia Publications and Tibetan Furniture by Chris Buckley from Floating World Editions.

Arts of Asia magazine has covered the subject in the January-February 1997 edition with an article by Tony Anninos entitled “Painted Tibetan Furniture” and again in the the July-August 2006 edition with the book review “Tibetan Furniture, Identifying, Appreciating, Collecting” again by Tony Anninos.

Joseph Fields