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Fact Sheet on Armoires

by Staff Writer

A beautifully crafted armoire

For hundreds of years, armoires have been a popular piece of bedroom furniture for their distinguished French style, sturdy construction and flexible use. Armoires continue to gain popularity and have moved steadily from the bedroom into every room in the house as TV armoires, computer armoires and jewelry armoires. How did this all start? Take a look on how this ever popular and beautiful piece of furniture got its start and developed into the modern armoire.

Facts about Armoires:

  1. Origins: According to furniture historians and etymologists, the modern armoire is the vertically oriented, great-, great-, great-grandchild of the chest; even the word "armoire" borrows from the Latin word for chest, "armarium." But make no mistake about the term: "Armoire" is French through and through, making its earliest documented appearance around the middle of the 16th century. As such, many armoire designs are named for the monarchs with whom they're associated, such as Louis Philippe or Louis XIV. Best estimates suggest that the oldest armoires date to the early 17th century, a time that coincides with the tail end of the French Renaissance and the beginning of the Enlightenment, as France was rising as a dominant European power.

  2. Early armoires were crafted of oak, and thanks to the period's style and the wood's density, tensile strength and weight, it was popular to embellish oak armoires with figurines, carvings and sculpture that would please the patron. More elaborate treatments grew to become the Baroque style and peaked with one furniture builder in particular.

  3. Advancement: Andre-Charles Boulle is widely considered the Antonio Stradivari of cabinet and armoire makers. His style is distinguished by the mastery with which he layered furniture with tortoiseshell, gold leaf and other malleable metals. Because it was less expensive and didn't require oak, which was becoming more and more scarce, walnut became the dominant armoire material. Luckily, around this time, Colonial America was harvesting a surplus of walnut timber. Besides filling the demand for cheap, solid wood, it produced a large cross-section of new furniture builders and new styles and made heavy-duty furniture, like armoires, more affordable to an increasingly affluent society. An explosion of armoires soon followed.

  4. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the armoire's overall design became more refined, artisans took advantage of the availability of exotic woods to distinguish their designs with polished inlays and unique building techniques.

  5. Armoire style and development: Over the years armoires have developed to feature several different styles.

    Armoire styles:

    • Renaissance: Elaborate carvings decorate these armoires, making every feature a potential focal point. Subject matter includes themes of the natural world as well as ancient Greek and Roman figures. Pieces are made from heavy woods, relying heavily on oak.

    • Louis XIII: Embellishment continues, but it becomes more staid and abstract. The period placed a greater premium on comfort and utility in response to the purchasing power of a growing middle class.

    • Louis XIV, XV and the Regency period: Armoires experience a return to adornment. The medium for decoration shifts from carving to elaborate finish work, emphasizing gold and bright lacquer. Inspiration comes from asymmetry and the Far East.

    • Louis XVI, Directoire and the Empire period: Armoires built during this time are typified by straight lines and the juxtaposition of different woods. Furniture for the aristocracy was distinguished by its bulk and largesse. Empire furniture is inspired by Greek, Roman and Egyptian themes.

    • Louis Philippe: With the rise of the bourgeoisie, furniture becomes mass-produced, available in sets, dramatically pared down and functional.

    • Art Nouveau and Art Deco: At the turn of the 19th century, armoires experience the return of curved lines and Rococo embellishment synonymous with Tiffany and Co., while the Art Deco movement reigns armoire design back again with an emphasis on bold, geometric patterns.

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