Familiar But Obscure Furniture Forms – A Primer
This entry deals with furniture forms which are probably familiar visually but whose original appellations may escape you at the moment. Instead of resorting to more colloquial expressions such as “X-chair” and “tall buffet,” the following traditional names for familiar objects may come in handy.
CELLARETTE – Originally, this was the very deep drawer found in older sideboards, sometimes as the bottom drawer and sometimes located on the side of the cabinet. This deep space was used as wine or liquor storage in the main cabinet. It later evolved as a separate cabinet for the storage of liquor and glass. The common application today is to a small tub used as a wine cooler.
Chiffonier – This tall narrow chest is called a chiffonier. It is the beginning of an entire related line of chests with drawers and doors.
Chifferobe – This cabinet combines a vertical door with stacked drawers.
Chifferobe Secretary – This cabinet take a chifferobe one step further by replacing the center drawers with a drop front secretary section.
Chifforette – The Depression era version has the doors on top rather than on a side. Often narrow drawers are concealed behind the doors similar to a mid 19th century linen press.
CHIFFONIER – This is a tall, slender chest similar to a lingerie chest but full size. The word “chiffonier” in addition to being the precursor of such American Depression words as “chifferobe” and “chifferette,” literally means “rag picker” in French; an apparent reference to its use as a place to store personal linen. The chiffonier evolved from the French article called a “semainier,” a seven-drawer chest with each drawer devoted to each day of the week’s personal linen.
CHESTERFIELD – An older English term that simply refers to an overstuffed couch or sofa whose closed ends are upholstered.
COFFER – We commonly refer to the modern variation of this article as a blanket chest or cedar chest. It originally was the jack-of-all-trades of the furniture world, serving ancient English folk as table, seating area and storage bin. Such compactness and utility was a plus in early unsettled English history when mobility was often required on very short notice.
COURT CUPBOARD – A form of tall buffet originating in Tudor England with French and Italian influences. This large piece of furniture was the often the main furnishing of a house, providing storage of small items in the doors and drawers of the top section and allowing display of important personal objects on its lower, open shelving. It reached its highest form in the Jacobean style and largely disappeared after that until its rebirth in the great Colonial Revival period of the American 20th century. A version of the court cupboard was often included as the “buffet” in a 1920s or ’30s William and Mary or Jacobean style dining set.
DAVENPORT – This one is tricky because it has several meanings, all equally valid and all virtually ignored in present day parlance. One name for the modern love seat or small sofa is “davenport.” The same term is sometimes applied to a sofa bed or a couch that folds out into a sleeping platform. The most common use of the term is to describe a small writing desk with drawers that open to the side rather than the front and having a lift up writing surface. These small desks—a favorite of sea captains—emerged in the late 18th century but reached their full blown height in the late Victorian era of the 19th century.
Savonarola – This fancy version of an “X” chair is called a Dante chair or a Savonarola chair, named after the heretic Italian priest of the 15th century.
DANTE – This, along with “Savonarola,” is the traditional name of the so-called “X-chair,” with the crossing support members that usually terminate in a sled base. The seat is usually deeply contoured but the back is flat. This style chair was a favorite of 16th century Venice and has enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. The 16th-century style itself was a revival of an ancient Roman design often known as the curule chair or the “sellas curule.”
PEMBROKE – This refers to a rectangular table with a drawer, having short drop leaves supported by pull out lopers or swinging brackets. This type table is sometimes referred to as a breakfast table. Thomas Sheraton alleged that the name derived from the Countess of Pembroke, who commissioned the first such table. The table is shown in the 1754 edition of Chippendale’s “Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.” The tables became popular in America in the late 1700s and remain a mainstay of traditional decor.
Recamier – This style lounge is called a recamier or a meridienne.
RECAMIER – This is the name of the lounge/couch made famous by Directoire and American Empire stylists such as Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honore Lannuier. It was patterned after Roman or Greek couches with one gracefully curving arm significantly higher than the other and often having scrolled ends. It is a close relative to the “meridienne,” a short sofa of the French Empire period.
The name comes from a portrait, now hanging in the Louvre, painted by French artist Jacques Louis David of Madame Recamier in 1800. Juliette Recamier was royally yet provocatively lounging on a couch shaped like an ancient Roman bed for the portrait. Madame Recamier was a much celebrated beauty and social figure of the French Empire, having many flagrant affairs with members of high society after having been wed at the age of 15 to a middle aged banker. The name just became associated with the style of the couch.
Vitrine – This glass display cabinet with vernis martin painted side panels, French circa 1900, is called a vitrine from the Latin vitrum meaning glass or French vitre, a pane of glass.
VITRINE – Essentially, a display cabinet with a glass door and perhaps glass sides and top. The glass door, replacing the solid door of earlier storage cabinets, became important during the latter part of the 17th century when collecting Oriental porcelain became fashionable. The evolution of the vitrine is as much a tribute to the evolution of glass making techniques and the abilities of glaziers as to cabinetmakers. Development of the curved cabinet side and the bombe case challenged glass artisans to ever higher achievement, particularly in France and Italy.
So much for obscure furniture terms for the moment. If you have some favorite ones please let me know and I’ll try to include them in a later column.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail email@example.com.
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