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ARMOIRES

An armoire is one of the most useful of all furniture types. My wife and I have three: one houses the computer equipment that I am using to compose this article; another contains our television and stereo equipment; the other, our murphy bed.

We speakers of English borrowed the word "armoire" from the French, who got it from Latin, armârium, chest, from arma, tools. This large wooden chest, almost always equipped with two doors, was originally used to store arms and armor. The word, which sometimes denoted a cupboard set into the paneling of a room, was probably first used in the 16th century, when detailed carving based on Flemish design was characteristic of fine examples. In the following century geometric designs in high relief became more common; also, in the 17th century the name was extended to cover wardrobes and clothespresses. The armoires designed by Andre-Charles Boulle, the cabinet-maker to Louis XIV in the late 17th century, are among the most sumptuous and imposing pieces of Western furniture and can be seen in many of America's art museums. One of his wardrobes is described later.

For the 21st century, the use of an armoire is limited only by its owner's imagination. A corporate president I used to work for stores his correspondence and contracts in an armoire in his office. Friends of ours use them to store linens in their bedrooms. Some, in their kitchens, store their china, tableware, napkins and tablecloths. Others, wines and liquors. Many owners of these remarkable pieces replace wooden panels in the doors with glass, transforming them into display cases for figurines, books, and other collectibles. In large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, apartments in old buildings sometimes have no closets. At all. For these spaces, armoires, also called wardrobes, not only protect clothing from urban dust and grime, but they also make strong decorating statements. If you have a taste for antiques, most dealers in your area will have a wide variety to choose from. And if you love browsing antique and furniture stores, as I do, you can follow your bliss on the Internet by browsing the Web sites of a variety of antique dealers and furniture manufacturers. These sites often have armoire photos that you can view, along with descriptions of the armoire's dimensions, its maker and his reputation, the provenance, and the material used to build it.

For example, at Abbey Antiques of Deadwood, SD, I found an 1890 French Louis XV style triple door "Rococo" oak armoire. According to the description accompanying the clear, full color photograph, it has "3 doors with the original beveled mirror door in the center, and two recessed panel doors on each side. The interior has adjustable shelving, and a "penderie" in the middle, with a linen shelf across the upper part. It also features the typical elaborate "rocaille" carving on its cornice. The bottom crossbar features the typical crossbow shape, on short cabriole feet. Its height: 96"; width: 63-1/2"; depth: 19-3/4". In its history, we are told: "This armoire was purchased in a consignment store in Souffel-Weyersheim, France. We have not been able to know where it came from and why it was sold."

Carrissa's Antiques of Nashville and Little Rock sells antique armoires, a Louis XV Rustique Armoire of solid cherry construction with all original woodwork and hardware. Carrissa lists the armoire at $3,950. Less expensive, but no-less beautiful, reproduction-antique armoires can be also found at Carrissa's Armoires, and at their website, they display a variety of armoires for general storage, computer stations, and television/stereo systems.

During a brief visit to Up Country Antiques, I found a delightful Bohemian pine single door armoire in original paint, dated 1840. In New York City, Paramount Antiques (www.paramount-antiques.com) sells armoires to the trade only, and you can get a copy of their complete catalog from their website. Ikea currently has no fewer than eight styles of wardrobes. Also in New York City is Lamu Industries, whose Web site (lamu.com) contains a striking armoire, seven feet tall, from the island of Lamu in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya.

Other places to get ideas about furniture in general, and armoires in particular, are art museums. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing, you can see period furniture in rooms restored to their original condition. The Hewlett Room (Woodbury, Long Island, New York, 1740-60), is a gift of Mrs. Robert W. deForest. Here, the woodwork is painted a bright blue, based on traces of the original color. And we see a unique variation of the armoire, a painted cupboard, or kas, which was made about 1690-1720 and came from the John Hewlett family for whom the house was built. The museum says cupboards like this are found exclusively in the New York and New Jersey areas settled by the Dutch, who painted designs on furniture to simulate carving.

The Louvre's Web site (www.louvre.fr) shows a magnificent wardrobe by André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), mentioned earlier. The wardrobe is made of oak and pine, with ebony, tortoiseshell, brass and tin veneering, gilt and bronze. The museum tells us, "Working in the Louvre from 1672 until his death, Boulle did not invent the marquetry technique to which he gave his name, but he did make the best use of it.

The technique comprised cutting a motif out of two superimposed, contrasting materials, one light and the other dark; the motif obtained from one is then inserted into the space left in the other. When the decoration is light on dark, it is called "en partie",–an example is the centre of the wardrobe where brass arabesques are fitted in a tortoiseshell background. "En contrepartie" is the name for dark colours used on a light background, as round the edge of the doors here, where tortoiseshell scrolls wind over a brass background. Boulle applied this technique to luxury furniture."

Whether you prefer flame finials and broken scroll pediments of antique armoires, or you'd rather live with simple, even severe, designs, you will be able to find the armoire that will enrich your home.

–by David Dannenbaum

Article courtesy of The Sheffield School of Interior Design.

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