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Hamptons Life

Oct 1, 2018 12:46 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Armoires And Wardrobes Have Changed Functions But Remain A Decorating Focal Point

JMF STYLE TWO-DOOR WENGE WOOD CABINET.  COURTESY G. OLIVERI
Oct 1, 2018 1:02 PM

A wardrobe (or armoire) is a standing closet for storing clothes.

Interestingly, the 14th century English word “wardrobe” can be traced to an Old French word “warderobe”; warder meaning to keep or guard, and robe meaning garment. The French word armoire is derived from the Latin “armorium,” which was a chest for storing armor. Whether a wardrobe or an armoire, they are the same thing and can be used interchangeably—although armoire is by far the more impressive word since it implies that the speaker knows French.

In any case, like any other type of furniture, the wardrobe/armoire came to be because there was a need for it. The need was storage, an ongoing quest since the Middle Ages. Chests had been used for storage for many years for clothing but more storage was needed for large items like linens, tapestries and rugs as well as weapons and armor.

It wasn’t until some degree of luxury was attained by the nobility and clergy that separate accommodations were provided for the garments and apparel of the wealthy. The name wardrobe was then given to a dedicated room in which the wall space was filled with closets, lockers and shelves, the drawer being a comparatively modern invention. The early medieval free-standing wardrobe/armoires were massive pieces of furniture standing quite tall, very wide and deep. Frequently they were also known as “presses.” A press had storage for linens and clothing plus an actual pressing mechanism that pre-dates the iron by hundreds of years. These large wardrobes would have been placed directly on the floor and did not have feet. Sometimes they were sculpted and were painted inside and out and usually had elaborate hinges.

The highly decorative armoire with its paintings and embossments plus architectural elements (like columns) became a showpiece in castles and churches. In time, heavily ornamented carving replaced the painted surfaces and by the Renaissance the armoire had become less massive, narrower and taller as space was added for the hanging of clothes. Over the centuries, dimensions changed, feet were added and the surface treatment and shape kept pace with the fashions of the times. A popular surface treatment on armoire doors in the 18th century was chinoiserie, a decorative process that imitated Chinese motifs usually in gold over a red or black lacquer finish. French country pieces are usually painted with a milk paint and either stenciled or decorated with bucolic scenes.

In the early 17th century the wardrobe in its “moveable form”—an oak cupboard that hung on the wall—began to be an export product from America to England because the English woodlands and forests had been over-harvested or deforested largely due to the needs of the English Navy. In the early years of this trade, American oak was the primary wood source used, but as oak became scarcer it was replaced by American walnut, which was more plentiful until it wasn’t, and later American maple. By the 19th century, the wardrobe developed into its modern form with hanging compartments on each side, a press in the upper part of the central portion and drawers below. Typically, a 19th century wardrobe was made in mahogany (a foreign wood) which began to be obtainable in large quantities during that time.

As I said in the beginning, originally armoires and wardrobes were used to store personal belongings and treasures because there were no built-in cupboards or closets, even in homes of the wealthy. It wasn’t until the 19th century that built-in closets became the norm in home design, meaning that wardrobe/armoires were freed up for other uses. Even with the advent of built-in closets and cabinets, there always seems to be a need for more storage. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that they had too much storage! In the 1930s, it wasn’t uncommon for a fine armoire (no longer needed for clothes) to be turned into a bar with the wood shelves and hanging sections replaced with mirrors and glass shelves for glassware and fancy decanters. By the mid 20th century, armoires became popular pieces of furniture to hide one’s television and equipment. For some, acknowledging that you had a TV in your home was out of the question, and what better piece of furniture to use? The armoire is perfect because once you close the doors all you see is a striking piece of furniture. The armoire and wardrobe serve another important purpose and have done so since the first was put in the castle entry for armor and weapons. They are the major decorative accent or focal point in almost any room. Whether Chinese, French, English, Scandinavian or American—an armoire is one of those pieces of furniture that catch the eye the moment one enters a room. Prices for antique armoires and wardrobes vary a lot, highly dependent on factors like condition, having original hardware, type of wood etc., but, generally speaking, prices have fallen for antique armoires, particularly 19th century mahogany and oak ones, as well as Chinese armoires, whether painted or carved.

They still can be used to great effect as the hidden entertainment unit (if properly done). It’s important to respect the piece of furniture when adapting for new use while maintaining the integrity of the antique. Back in the 1970s, a client was considering buying a very unique tall Korean 18th century cabinet. He and his wife had made several visits to my showroom to look, gawk and admire. I thought they were collectors until they arrived one day with their decorator in tow who promptly began feverishly measuring it. When he exclaimed, “Yes, it’ll work,” I asked what he meant. He told me it would work as a TV cabinet once the inside and back were taken out and the doors stripped of hardware so they could retract. Stunned, I said it was a shame he hadn’t called first, because it had been sold just that morning! Then I showed him armoires that were suitable for his use, i.e., they didn’t have to be mutilated to perform the desired function. My advice is to ask a professional dealer if a piece can be repurposed without destroying its intrinsic value first. When it comes to antiques, even minor changes can affect the value of an item.

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