Tuesday, September 1, 2015
QUESTION: I bought this piece of furniture recently, and I'm not sure what it's called. It has drawers on each side and a closet in the middle. The piece is extremely heavy and stands about six feet tall. Can you help me, please?
ANSWER: Your piece of furniture is commonly called a chifforobe, a combination of the French word “chiffonier” and the English word “wardrobe.” These pieces have been somewhat of a mystery because different groups of people have given them different names over the years.
These closet-like pieces of furniture originated in 1908 and became especially popular during the Art Deco Period in the United States from 1925-1935 or so. Your piece is a good example of high-style Art Deco, similar to French Art Deco. The drawer pulls on the bottom and the front feet are in the waterfall pattern. These pieces held a lot of clothes at a time when houses had very small bedroom closets.
A chifforobe combines a long space for hanging clothes with a chest of drawers. Typically the wardrobe section runs down one side of the piece, while the drawers occupy the other side. It may have two enclosing doors or have the drawer fronts exposed and a separate door for the hanging space.
The 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue first advertised chifforobes as a "a modern invention, having been in use only a short time." Southerners seem to use the term more than anyone else. However, others use this piece of furniture but may call it an armoire or a wardrobe.
A wardrobe is a standing closet used for storing clothes. Many people argue that wardrobes are different in use and style of closets, but the French created to use as a closet. While the earliest wardrobe was a chest, it wasn’t until the homes of wealthy nobles became more luxurious that a separate room held their clothing. Builders filled this room with closets and lockers since drawers didn’t exist at the time. From these cupboards and lockers the modern wardrobe, with its hanging spaces, sliding shelves and drawers, eventually evolved.
Throughout the evolutionary changes in the form of the enclosure, it more or less retained its function as a place to store a noble’s apparel. Over time, the word “wardrobe” came to mean an independent storage place for preserving precious items belonging to the home’s wealthy owner. The modern wardrobe differs from the historical one in its triple partitioning, with two linear compartments on either side with shelves as well as a middle space made up of hanging pegs and drawers, which came later. A clothes press, placed at the height of a person’s chest, enabled servants to lay clothing that they had just ironed on a pull-out tray.
In the beginning, cabinetmakers used oak to construct wardrobes, but later oak went out of use in favor of the more elegant walnut. They based the size on a wardrobe on the eight small men method. A good sized double wardrobe would thus be able to hold eight small men.
In the 19th century the wardrobe began to develop into its modern form, with a hanging cupboard at each side, a press in the upper part of the central portion and drawers below. More often than not, cabinetmakers used mahogany for its construction. However, fine-grained, foreign woods became easier to obtain in quantity, and cabinetmakers used them to create elaborately and magnificently inlaid wardrobes.
While furniture designers in the 18th century often created luxurious wardrobes of highly-polished woods, the ultimate refinement occurred with the introduction of central doors, which had previously enclosed merely the upper part, were carried to the floor, covering the drawers as well as the sliding shelves, and were often fitted with mirrors.
As mass production of furniture became more common in the late 19th century, furniture manufacturers abandoned the refinements of early wardrobes in favor of simpler, if not downright plain decoration. By the 1920s, wardrobes appeared in cheaper woods so that they could be sold to the growing middle class of consumers. The term “chifforobe” became an everyday household word, especially to more blue-color people who could purchase one as part of a bedroom set when they got married. However, some manufacturers still made beautiful examples in the American Art Deco or Waterfall style.