Framed panelling had been used in ancient times, as examples found at Herculaneum testify; its reintroduction in the Burgundian Netherlands at the beginning of the 15th century was an improvement that soon spread throughout western Europe. Panelled construction solved the problem of building large surface areas, as on the front of a chest or cupboard, which before this time had been limited by the size of individual planks. These planks, usually hewn with an adz, were heavy and liable to warp and split. Panels could be cut thinner, the main strain being taken by the framework, and the furniture was therefore lighter; moreover, if the panels were not fitted too tightly in their stiles, the wood was less likely to split if it did warp. Now that it was possible to construct larger surface areas, a new range of storage furniture, cupboards and chests in particular, was developed.
Other constructional improvements of the 15th century included the introduction of drawers into cupboards and similar storage furniture, and neater and more efficient joints, such as the mitre and the mortise and tenon. Panelling was frequently decorated with a flat form of ornament called linenfold, or parchment. Linenfold was widely used in the north of France, Flanders, Low Germany north to the Baltic, Scandinavia, and England. The linenfold of France, the Low Countries, and Germany is carved with a sharper definition and greater delicacy than was usual in England and elsewhere. Both panelled furniture and room panelling were decorated with linenfold. Other forms of carved decoration on furniture became more common during the 15th century, when surfaces were carved with tracery and other Gothic motifs. During the Middle Ages a great many pieces of furniture, including those with carved decoration, were painted and sometimes gilded, a practice that continued well on into the Renaissance (the present state of existing pieces, with their plain wooden surfaces, is misleading). Chairs, tables, and various types of cupboards were also frequently draped with bright fabrics, while chairs, settles, and other seat furniture were provided with cushions.
The religious houses were an exception to this in that they enjoyed a certain security denied to the outside world. Much of the best furniture of this period was therefore made for use in churches and monasteries, and many of the ideas and developments that were later to add to the domestic comfort of Europe originated in the cloister. An example can be seen in the early development for ecclesiastical use of the various types of reading and writing furniture, such as lecterns and desks, that show ingenuity in construction. Throughout the Middle Ages and well on into the 16th and 17th centuries, all types of furniture remained scarce, and any reasonably good furniture belonged to the nobility and the wealthy merchants. The household equipment of the peasantry throughout Europe, even as late as the 18th century, was frequently crude in design and roughly constructed.
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