The origin of the Armoire goes much further back in time than one would think. The Ancient Romans gave the Latin word Armarium to a cupboard where armoury such as breast plates, shields, helmets and swords were securely kept. The Armoire developed as a logical step, in terms of storage capacity, from the more humble coffer. The coffer was possibly the very first formal piece of furniture ever made. It represented a secure storage place, it could be transported, it could be sat on, it could be used as a table, and when several coffers were put together they formed a bed for their owner. No-one could then attempt to steal things while the owner was asleep!
Far from its bellicose origins the more genteel Armoire became the principal piece of furniture of the home, designed to contain the precious linens, glassware and crockery of the household. Being an expensive piece of furniture, the Armoire was generally decorated for effect, to make a statement in the room where the guests were entertained.
Depending on the historical period and on the geographical area of Europe where it was made, the Armoire may have been painted, carved, studded with brass or steel nail heads, or simply decorated with shaped mouldings. If one considers that furniture construction materials were often more costly than the labour that went into it, the Armoire was almost always made from locally sourced timbers. A southern French Provencale piece, for example, would more likely have been made out of walnut or fruitwood; whereas an eastern French piece would have been made out of painted pine. Further North in France oak and elm would have been the preferred, local timbers.
Armoires reached their highest levels of sophistication during the 17th and 18th centuries in France. During this period styles gradually changed in shape and decoration, from the formal and symmetrical designs of the Louis XIV period (in the late 1600’s), through the flamboyant and often asymmetrical designs of the Louis XV period (during the early 1700’s), to the elegantly neoclassical designs of the Louis XVI period (of the late 1700’s).
The facades of Armoires closely followed these design trends, and the closer the manufacturer was to a town centre, the quicker was his adaptation of the latest design trends. Most importantly, even though Armoires were built according to the latest design trends, they still incorporated the decorative ‘dogmas’ of the regions in which they were made. As a result, each region of provenance is clearly identifiable in the decorations seen on facades: Provencale pieces are richly carved with bas-relief floral and foliate motifs, the Loire region has elegant and sober facades, Brittany prefers brass studs and baluster-turned wheel motifs, the North perhaps shows a Calvinist restraint in the simple shapes and decorations of their pieces. Some of the most easily identifiable and spectacularly decorated Armoires come from the region of Normandy, and of these, the most spectacular is by far the “Armoire de Marriage”.
The marriage Armoire was traditionally a wedding gift for a newly-wed couple, made to hold the young family’s trousseau and all their most precious treasures, the embroidered lines, the fine glass and china. The facade is richly and elegantly carved with an array of allegories and symbols depicting all the good-wishes for their future life together: Baskets of Spring flowers representing fertility, sheaths of wheat and grape vines describing abundance, pairs of nesting doves a symbolising the “nest”, musical instruments and sheet music as an allegory for harmony. It was a tradition in parts of Normandy that when a girl was born her family had a large tree chopped down. Its planks were then put to the long seasoning process required. When twenty years later that girl got engaged, those planks were ready to be used to make her an Armoire de Marriage.