In the past 20 years, the status of the armoire has evolved from exotic to essential, from overscaled white elephant to a staple among household furnishings.
This is simply because it's a piece of furniture that actually works. In fact, the armoire has been functioning diligently in Europe since the Middle Ages. Back then it was a kind of locker in which the well-dressed crusader could hang his suit of armor and store his mace, spear, sword and other weapons of righteous warfare.
Later, presumably when hand-to-hand combat faded from favor, the armoire assumed more domestic duties, serving as a cabinet for clothes in pre-closet centuries. Almost every bedroom in every European castle, palace and villa had one of these high, wide and mighty handsome pieces. Through the centuries, armoires found their way into more modest households and even humble cottages.
They enjoyed limited popularity among the affluent on this side of the Atlantic, at least up through the Victorian age. But middle-class homes after then were too small for these behemoths, which were sometimes 6 feet wide and 8 or 9 feet tall. With the advent of built-in closets and basements, armoires were relegated to the status of antique anomalies limited to a few historic mansions and museums.
They began to make a comeback, though, in the '70s. Strapped-for-cash flower children and, later, urban-pioneer yuppies began to rescue these instant heirlooms from the back rooms of antiques shops and to turn them into cabinets for stereo components and, if you can remember that far back, record albums.
The popularity of the armoire has grown steadily since then. Savvy antiques dealers have been importing European armoires in all shapes, styles and sizes for more than 20 years to satisfy the American demand. They're still coming in from France, England, Germany, Ireland and Scandinavia by the boatload.
American furniture manufacturers were slow to catch on, but seem to have caught up, producing reproduction antique armoires - as well as contemporary versions - in mass quantities.
Consequently, a well-stocked marketplace means that obtaining one of these furniture essentials is relatively easy no matter where you live. You're sure to find them at the antiques mall and at local furniture shops and department stores. You'll also encounter them in mail-order catalogs and, if you're online, through the Internet.
But why should you want one (or, for that matter, more than one)? Because an armoire is one of the most versatile pieces of furniture around. Depending on its size, shape and interior configuration, it can be an entertainment center in the family room, a china cabinet in the dining room, a formal hideaway for a television in the living room, an extra closet in the bedroom, a linen closet in the bathroom, even a larder in the kitchen.
These work-anywhere cabinets offer capacious storage in a high-rise form that looks anything but utilitarian and requires only minimal floor space. Crown moldings, dentil moldings, carved onlays and inlays and raised panel doors can go a long way toward adding elaborate architectural detail to otherwise featureless rooms.
If you settle on an antique armoire, you can retrofit it with clothes rods, shelves or compartments as your needs dictate. If you can't do the work yourself, a handyman can probably do the work for you. Some antiques dealers will offer interior customizing for a fee.
If you buy new, some manufacturers offer a variety of interior options. Ethan Allen's reproduction Louis XV armoire comes in four versions - as a self-contained home office, linen closet, clothes closet or home theater - for $3,300 to $4,000.
Pub Date: 5/10/98