Give any room more character and function with an armoire — this queen of antiques is also a storage workhorse
Built-in closets are a rather newfangled idea. Although they could occasionally be found in colonial America, they didn’t come into common use until after World War II. Nowadays they’re viewed as a basic necessity, like indoor plumbing, and it can be quite a nuisance if you’re in an old house that’s missing them.
But there’s one reason to be thankful that closets weren’t around in centuries past, because their absence gave rise to one of my favorite pieces of furniture: the beloved and marvelous armoire. Not only do armoires provide capacious storage and fantastic versatility, but their design impact is just what’s needed when you want to add some spice and energy to a room.
Dining room. And speaking of setting the tone, the elegant and ornately carved French example shown here, paired with a graceful crystal chandelier, creates a refined atmosphere in this dining room. It makes me want to cook something delicious and have a big group of friends over for dinner! Lurking behind those doors could be table linens, a bar, collections of dishes and crystal, a stereo playing a CD of Edith Piaf … just let your imagination go wild.
One of the nice things about these great big pieces of furniture is that they were often made to come apart for easy moving. The doors often lift easily off the hinges, the crown and base might be separate pieces, and sometimes even the sides will be designed to easily disassemble.
Living room. An antique armoire is also at home in the living room, where it can provide visual interest and a focal point that might have otherwise been supplied by a fireplace. This high-style, over-the-top piece with a mirrored door and beautiful marquetry definitely adds drama.
One thing to be careful about is that armoires with single doors (especially if equipped with a big, heavy mirror like this one) can tip over on you when you open the door. If it’s filled with heavy things, this isn’t a problem. But if not, you might want to secure it to the wall using one of those earthquake braces — which is a good idea anyway with tall pieces of furniture.
Study. An armoire fitted with glass doors is a bibliotheque (translated from the Latin for “library”). The beautifully inlaid iteration here can hold and display books, collections, ceramics and objets d’art.
It’s important to test an armoire’s doors to make sure they open and close properly. Also, check the drawers to ensure they slide easily and are sturdy and intact. Broken parts can be fixed, of course, but you’ll want to know if there will be any extra expense in getting your armoire into usable condition.
Guest room. In a guest room, it can store bedding, as with this antique French Louis Philippe version. The glass doors make it visually lighter, and also allow guests to admire carefully collected linens.
Note: Make sure you measure your space before you buy an armoire, and bring a tape measure when shopping. When you’re sizing up an armoire, carefully measure the widest part (the crown or base) and not just the midriff. I’ll never forget helping a friend try to get an armoire up narrow stairs in his little house in Seattle. After many attempts (and a hernia or two), we finally ended up having to cut it into two pieces. He was unfailingly positive, announcing with a smile that “now it’s no longer an armoire; it’s a chest-on-chest.”
Bathroom. Technically, you might call this a vitrine, but what’s in a name? It’s really just an armoire with glass doors, and used with great flair in this bathroom to store and display towels and toiletries.
Speaking of glass doors: When you’re purchasing an armoire so equipped, look carefully for cracked or broken glass. It can be replaced, but you don’t want to be surprised when you get the piece home.
Have you gotten the idea that I love these portable closets? Antique armoires, in their many forms and variants, are a grand addition, with great decorating potential. Not only do they create a beautiful focal point, visual interest and a romantic air, but their practicality (they’re versatile and provide storage) puts them at the top of my list of desirable design choices.