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When the Armoire Was King

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Pre built-in closets, a classic storage solution offered both beauty and utility.

Photograph courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

The classic armoire is a titan among vintage furnishings. Simply consider its heritage as a fixture in French manor homes, Tuscan villas, English castles and sprawling 18th-century Pennsylvania farmhouses.

Despite its large size, the beauty and utility of the armoire has never been in doubt. “It’s a large case piece that serves as a closet,” says Winterthur furniture expert Gregory Landrey. “It’s a wardrobe that went by different names—‘schrank’ or ‘kas’ is the Pennsylvania Dutch equivalent. But they all have the same purpose of holding clothes or linens.”

The armoire is one of a number of ensemble vintage pieces from a bygone era, including hutches in kitchens, sideboards in dining rooms, open-down secretaries in offices and four-poster beds in private quarters. Like its contemporaries, it served multiple purposes—not just for storage of clothes “but also for large items like linens, rugs, and tapestries, as well as weapons and armor,” writes furniture historian Abe Abbas on the award-winning website TheSpruce.com.

While its current iteration harkens back to 17th-century France, the concept itself dates back to medieval times. Known as a press, it was made of oak and outfitted with shelves specifically for linens and clothing. Eventually, drawers were added.
However pervasive armoires have been over the centuries, I was only introduced to them a few years ago, when my wife developed a fondness for them. We now have two—one is a massive 10 feet, with a door on either side and a large full-length mirror in the middle. It literally groans under the weight of glass. Like its ancestors, this particular armoire has carved surfaces, but the wood is anything but delicate. When we last relocated, our movers felt the full weight of it, having to disassemble and reassemble it in sections.

As it turns out, that’s not so uncommon with armoires. “The fact that these larger armoires were meant to be taken apart
and moved elsewhere suggested that they were built to have a longer life [in more than one] home,” Winterthur’s Landrey says.

But that wasn’t always the case. These classic pieces of furniture remain staples in European homes, often residing in one place for multiple generations—perhaps simply due to their size mandating such permanence. While armoires in the traditional sense remain popular in Europe, American preferences have changed rather dramatically. “When built-in closets became the norm, armoires were freed up for other uses,” Abbas says. “During the last decades of the 20th century, armoires became popular for storing TVs, audio equipment, CDs and DVDs.”

They even became popular in home offices as a perfect place for hiding cumbersome computer systems.“Shut the doors, and all you see is a striking piece of furniture,” says Abbas.

Despite their long history, armoires aren’t always recognized as period pieces, though they certainly reflect their origins. “French armoires put more emphasis on the wood and its carving,” says Landrey. “German and Pennsylvania Dutch schranks
are often colorfully painted—and some are even inlaid.”

Whatever their style or chosen function, armoires remain beautiful pieces that will continue to serve their purpose and quietly witness history.

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