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The Most Wanted Vintage & Upcycled Furniture Piece - The Chest of Drawers

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Drawn to Drawers: A Furniture Artist's Favourite

Photo by Max Rahubovskiy

Hey, there furniture painters!

Did you ever wonder why the chest of drawers is such a beloved item in our craft?

Hint: It's not just because of its practicality.

As furniture painters and upcyclers, we get to bring these pieces to life.

With a chest of drawers, we have a unique canvas to work with - from intricate carvings to smooth, clean lines.

The possibilities are endless, and that's what makes them such an exciting and essential part of our furniture painting arsenal.

In Ruth’s fascinating blog, we'll explore the history, appeal, and artistic potential of the chest of drawers.

Let’s dive in!

The Fascinating History and Enduring Popularity of the Humble Chest of Drawers

Drawer Obsession: Why We Love a Chest of Drawers

Can we just talk about the sheer number of chests of drawers we all have in our homes?

I mean, seriously, take a minute to count them up. Go on, I’ll wait.

I did, and I was flabbergasted to find out that I have a whopping 11 of them and that doesn’t include single drawers over sideboard cupboards.

That’s a pretty phenomenal number, even more outrageous, given there are only 2 of us in the house!

I should point out, in my calculations, I’ve included any piece of furniture that has more than 2 drawers set vertically, e.g. bedside drawers, kitchen drawers, chests of drawers, filing cabinets and in-wardrobe drawers.

And, it appears I am not alone in my love for this particular piece of furniture. Drawers, (in the above format), are a consistent top seller among members of the TFAC, accounting for roughly 10% of sales in February 2023, and 20% of March 2023 sales.

It’s crazy to think that we use drawers multiple times a day, and yet we never really stop to appreciate them.

So, I thought I’d do some sleuthing.

From Coffers to Highboys: A Brief History of Drawers

Did you know that the humble chest of drawers, as we know them today, has only been around since the late 17th century?

It’s true….

Before then, there was very little need for such pieces, as most of the population had very few possessions to store.

However, there was a forerunner to the drawers, and it was known as a “coffer” chest.

Basically, a coffer chest was a large wooden chest with a hinged lid, used for storing clothing and linens. It was one of the earliest forms of furniture, and while more ornate, carved coffer chests were common in middle and upper-class households, poorer households managed with a simpler design of 5-6 plain planks of wood nailed together.

The most common wood used to make a coffer chest was oak, known for its strength and sturdiness. This was particularly important in the case of the coffer chest, as this piece of furniture was often used for seating, and even as a bed. So, you could say that the coffer chest was the predecessor of the Ottoman! ( the furniture, not the empire!).

Towards the end of the 17th Century, possibly to coincide with the increase in cabinet-making skills, and the spread of wealth, (I speak relatively here), the demand increased for grander pieces of furniture and the “modern” chest of drawers emerged onto the furniture scene.

A Status Symbol Turned Household Staple

Earlier models were small, and given the intricacies of manufacture, quite expensive to buy, so they were very much a statement piece and used, basically, to show off wealth and status.

As time went on, the functionality of the modest chest of drawers was combined with more and more elaborate designs, decorative detailing, veneers, and exotic woods, and pieces increased in size to become even more practical.

Soon, every household has some form of chest of drawers, with the bigger, grander, ornamental and decorative pieces being as much a statement of position and importance, as anything else.

What's in a Name? The Many Variations of the Chest of Drawers

Nowadays there is a plethora of names for what is essentially a chest of drawers, but they all have slight differences in their usage or size.

In North America, a chest of drawers is often called either a “Dresser” or a “Bureau”.

Throughout the world, a high stack of drawers is referred to as a “Tallboy” or “Highboy”. More drawers for sure, but perhaps a little less practical if you’re on the short side.

A “Lowboy” does what it says on the tin – 2/3 drawers often used as a dressing table.

A “Chiffonier” is a smaller chest of drawers often referred to as a sideboard and sometimes has doors to enclose the front.

Chest of Drawers: A Furniture Painter’s Best Friend

Doubtless, there are numerous other terms, but one thing is for sure, this piece of furniture is, arguably one of the most useful to have in the house or workplace. And perhaps, just as importantly for Furniture Painters, Artists, and upcyclers a very useful piece to have in their core offering.

Whether they're creating a new masterpiece or simply storing their materials, a trusty chest of drawers is a staple piece.

And given its multitude of uses, and its huge and enduring popularity, you won’t go far wrong having a chest of drawers, (or two) ready to ship.

Trust me, it'll fit in seamlessly with any decor and make for an excellent base to build upon for a commission piece.

Photo by Godfrey's Ear, Humble Bee View, at Burton Shutts Farm, Cuscas Ln, Brailsford, Ashbourne DE6 3BG

Enjoying the blog? Next, we’ll look at the huge boom in popularity of the mid-century cocktail cabinet, and perhaps even a suggestion or two for a tipple, or two! So stay tuned ...........

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