Furniture French: You May Already Speak It

A chifferobe’s name is a combination of two words: “wardrobe” and chiffonier, the French term for a tall chest of drawers.

If you like older and antique furniture, you may have already acquired another asset that you didn’t even know about in addition to the antiques.

You may have the beginnings of a second or, in some cases, even a third language skill.

Most of us are reasonably proficient in English, and some of the fortunate or ambitious have a second language at their command. But if you collect antique furniture, you probably have already started learning French, even if it is in self defense, sometimes.

My introduction to “furniture French” was at a garage sale many years ago when I inquired about the price of the large cabinet with the mirrored door. “Oh, you mean the armoire?” asked the host.

Call it what you will, I still wanted to know the price of the cabinet. Turns out it wasn’t an armoire. It was a chifferobe. Both names are nevertheless based in French, and I soon learned that I had a lot more to learn—in French.

The chifferobe is a cabinet with hanging storage behind a door on one side and stacked drawers on the other. The name is a combination of chiffonier—a “tall chest” in French—and a wardrobe, the English name for an armoire.

I was surrounded by French.

Here are some more French names of things you probably are familiar with:

The abattant, or secrétaire à abattant, is a closed-up desk.

Abattant or Secrétaire à abattant: An imposing word for a closed-up desk. Taking the architectural concept to the max, the Empire period saw the introduction of the secrétaire à abattant, which presented a completely blank architectural face to the observer. Its front opened to reveal the fitted interior customarily found in other secretaries, and blind panel doors covered lower storage. DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York in 1820, had such a desk, as did the French queen Marie Antoinette just before she lost her head. The secrétaire part is pretty easy to figure. It is from “secretary,” another Latin derivation based on scriptorium or scrutoire. But abattant? It refers to the drop front, meaning flat and articulated loose flap.

Bergere: An armchair with closed arms is called a bergere, from the French word berger , it means “shepherdess.” The term was coined in Paris in the mid-18th century as the chair developed from the wing chair.

Cheval mirror: The cheval mirror is a mirror suspended between two uprights that can tilt backward and forward for a wider view. The earliest cheval mirrors, from the late 18th century, were very tall and heavy and were weighted with lead in the bottom as a counterbalance. In order to tilt the heavy mirror, a pulley system was used to lighten the load. In 18th century England, a pulley was called a “horse.” The French word for horse is cheval. Thus, the tilting mirror became the “horse” mirror or the cheval mirror.

The cheval mirror’s name is derived from the French word for “horse.”

Chifferobe: A cabinet that has a door on one side and stacked drawers on the other is called a chifferobe. It is a combination of a chiffonier, the French name for a tall chest of drawers (it actually means “rags”) and a wardrobe or armoire.

Étagére: Sometimes called a “whatnot,” this type of display cabinet is named from the French word estagiere, which derives from estage, a floor of a building. It ends up meaning, literally, a stage for the display of objects.

Fauteuil: The counterpoint to the bergere is the faureuil, an open armed chair with upholstered seat, back and arms with a single support for each arm. The name comes from the Old French faudestuel, or “stool.”

Ormolu: The fancy metal decoration on some vitrines is called ormolu, from the French dorure d’or moulu, meaning “gilding with gold paste.” Found as mounts or decorative accents on many pieces, it is brass, bronze or copper castings that have been gilded and mounted as decorations on furniture. It was first used principally by the French in the 18th century and later employed extensively in Rococo and Neoclassical stylings. In 20th-century reproductions, it is often cast “pot metal” that is then painted with brass or gold paint.

A recamier got its name from a painting that hangs in the Louvre.

Recamier: The name comes from a portrait of Madame Récamier painted by French artist Jacques Louis David in 1800 and now hanging in the Louvre. for the portrait, Juliette Recamier was royally, yet provocatively, lounging on a couch shaped like an ancient Roman bed. 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. The version of the flat couch from the French Empire period that has one end higher than the other is called a meridenne.

The decorative technique of vernis Martin takes its name from two French brothers.

Vernis Martin: The romantic-themed paintings often found on furniture, especially French-style cabinet works like the vitrines, is in a style called vernis Martin. It is named for the French brothers Guillaume and Etienne-Simon Martin. They are sometimes given credit for developing the translucent lacquer paint, although they actually stole the original formula, a substitute for Oriental lacquer, and just improved it. They, of course, did not invent the painting style itself, just the medium, but the style retains their name.

Vitrine: A vitrine is a glass display cabinet. The name is derived from the French word vitre, which means a “pane or panel of glass.”

So now you speak “furniture French.”


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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