Cabinet shake-up

Sculptural showcase meets storage solution as the tall cabinet returns to the home – and designers rediscover its creative potential. Helen Chislett selects the best.

August 28 2010
Helen Chislett

The ebb and flow of furniture shapes and styles has mirrored human history for centuries. Chairs, tables and beds may not change their intrinsic nature, but in terms of scale, shape, material and ornamentation they vary hugely, reflecting the fashions and social forces of the day. And then there are the pieces that disappear entirely from view, only to be resurrected in new forms for changing tastes and styles of living.

So it is with the cabinet. Tall, imposing and often magnificently decorated, the cabinet has featured in every golden age of furniture; from baroque to rococo, William and Mary to regency, arts and crafts to art deco. Yet at some point in the final quarter of the last century, it suffered a startling demise. The minimalist wave of the 1980s resulted in a sea of neutral colours, open-plan living and predominantly low, unobtrusive furniture that remained the standard for the next 15 years. Cabinets simply ceased to be relevant.

Well, no more. It is goodbye to the age of wenge and beige, hello to more extrovert and interesting times. The cabinet was one of the most inspiring trends at this year’s international design events, including Design Miami at Basel in June. Suddenly, cabinets abound, from the towering walnut heartwood Estense cabinet by architect Michele De Lucchi that is over 2.5m high (edition of six, $62,000) to Tube Etagère by Christophe Côme (unique, $50,000), the height of which is dictated by the glass rods he incorporates into the ornate ironwork.

Designers are not only playing with scale and material but also with form. Take The Shell by Maarten Baas (unique, price on request), a cabinet fabricated from irregular facets of steel welded together that Ambra Medda, co-founder and director of Design Miami, likens to “abstract monsters behaving like cabinets”; or Armadio L’Abbraccio by Gaetano Pesce for Le Fablier (€15,060), which depicts a couple kissing; or Martino Gamper’s Totem (unique, price on request), an unruly skyscraper of recycled furniture.

“It’s true that cabinets got a little bit lost in recent years,” says Medda. “They simply weren’t part of the vocabulary of design. Now there is a natural desire on the part of designers to go back into history and reapproach some of these beautiful and elegant elements of furniture, to reintroduce them into the home in a way that makes sense for the way we live now. It is as if we were all reminiscing for an elegant past of specially made objects. By changing the scale, using different materials or embellishing them in unusual ways, designers can take something once considered traditional and make it artsy and permissible again.”

Furniture historian and deputy chairman of Christie’s International, Charles Cator is not surprised by designers’ desire to return to the cabinet. “It has always been a vehicle for the display of virtuosity,” he says. “Think of the 18th-century pietra dura Badminton Cabinet [which sold for a record £19m at Christie’s in 2004] or the incredible work of André-Charles Boulle. Now the whole design-art movement has become more highly regarded, designers once again want to use its form to show their creativity and mastery of material.”

One of the most obvious examples of this is Marc Newson’s Pod of Drawers, ahead of its time in 1987 but highly collectable because of the incredible technical skill involved in its making. The most recent example to be auctioned at Phillips de Pury in New York in June sold for $350,500. There’s also Armoire by Tord Boontje for the design arm of Mallett antiques house, Meta (price on request, to order), produced with traditional cabinet-making techniques inherited from the 18th century and conceived to look just as good when open as closed.

Indeed, designer-makers seem to be flexing their creative muscles producing cabinets of every material, from the elegant carbon fibre of Bas Warmoeskerken’s Heavy Lightweight cupboard for Droog (edition of 20, $79,500), an apparently solid antique piece that is in fact light as a feather; to the ornate marquetry of Studio Job’s Dinder cabinet (unique, price on request); from the padded, buttoned fantasy of Kiki van Eijk’s handmade Soft Cabinet 39 Drawers (edition of five, €16,640) – in fact made of ceramic; to the polished stainless steel of No Screw No Glue by Joost van Bleiswijk (edition of five, €93,870), which comprises over 160 elements ingeniously slotted together.

Furniture and interior designer Francis Sultana has long trumpeted the cabinet and is delighted to see renewed interest in its form. “There is definitely a trend towards interiors that hark back to classicism and the neo-baroque,” he says. “If a cabinet is beautifully proportioned it will look good in any room. A few designers, notably André Dubreuil, have produced some remarkable examples in recent years, but now we are seeing a surge of designers taking interest in them once again – it is reminiscent of the amazing collaborations of Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti in the late 1980s.” Until last year, Sultana was the creative director of David Gill Galleries, which sells many of Bonetti’s designs, including two 2004 creations: Fakir, an op-art effect of mirror-polished stainless steel and small aluminium cylinders that resemble a bed of nails (edition of eight, £76,375), and Strata, an intricate jigsaw of stainless-steel panels (edition of eight, £76,375).

In fact, Bonetti has never fallen out of love with the cabinet, and Paul Kasmin Gallery is currently selling two of his latest designs, Frequency and Quasimodo. Frequency (edition of eight, $110,000) is made of clear acrylic with lavish gold-plated brass ornamentation – Bonetti describes it as “visually treacherous – it is so controlled in its design it almost disappears”. Quasimodo (edition of eight, $125,000) is its polar opposite; a wood, resin and wrought-iron structure that incorporates surface sculpture, abstract painting and texture. Bonetti endorses Cator’s view that the cabinet is an opportunity for a maker to show his or her flair. “It is the perfect piece on which to work,” he says. “I am like a sculptor with a piece of stone or a painter with a canvas. I love it for the creative possibilities it offers, the pure beauty of the form.”

Among the new generation of designers reinterpreting the cabinet is British designer-maker Peter Marigold, whose Palindrome series was created in response to the brief set for the Designers of the Future award at Design Miami/Basel 2009, which specified the use of plaster and mirror as primary materials. Palindrome includes the Gun cabinet now on sale through Moss in New York (unique, $4,500). Like the rest of the collection, it explores the idea of symmetry with one half made of timber, from which the other half is cast in gypsum plaster. As Marigold explains, “I am very interested in geometry and symmetry, and Palindrome follows variations on that theme”.

For Marigold, it is function as much as form that draws him towards cabinets. “I have a huge amount of stuff I have collected – its the curse of being an object person – and I am drawn to the psychology of why we create large storage objects, the form of which is often influenced by collections of smaller objects. A cabinet is, after all, really an evolution of a shelf.” A desire to look back through history is core to his inspiration. “I am fascinated by museum cabinets, collector’s cabinets and museums themselves, such as the Pitt Rivers in Oxford.”

Of course, the fact that so many of these cabinets are tall could have a practical reason too. “The economy is sour and the housing market is difficult, so moving house is increasingly complicated,” points out Franklin Getchell, co-owner of Moss. “People are tending to stay put and make the most of where they already are, and a tall cabinet helps maximise space by offering more storage room on a small footprint.” However, some designers seem intent on pushing out the boundaries of what a cabinet may in fact contain. Studio Jurgen Bey, for example, has produced Birdwatch Cabinet Girl (edition of four, €35,000), a sleep maisonette for a child that is both charming and eccentric.

Meanwhile, Medda believes designers are more at ease now with tradition. “There was a time when designers thought they should concentrate on making a mouse pad rather than a drinks trolley,” she says, “but now there is an acceptance that coffee tables and sofas will never go away, because we will always want to sit and interact and make conversation.

“People will also always want pieces that are special and personal – an extension of who they are. Designers are looking to reintroduce the cabinet in a way that makes sense to them. These cabinets aren’t about having somewhere to tuck folders and files out of sight. They are about surrounding yourself with something wonderful and sculptural that you can look at every day and treasure for ever.”

Helen Chislett is a co-author of Star Pieces: The Enduring Beauty of Spectacular Furniture (Thames & Hudson, £40) with Charles Cator and David Linley.

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