The Performative Power of the Antique Etagere

The antique etagere, like all antique furniture, rose out of its time. Combining a shelf and a side table, storage and style, an etagere is one of the most flexible objects you can bring into your space.

As we delve into its history, we must first consider 18th-century France as a cultural epoch. Artistic developments are always influenced by surrounding circumstances – and a time of palatial splendor, powerful kings, and artisan rigor was certain to yield an object as ingeniously simple as the antique etagere.

What is an Etagere?

Let’s define “etagere” in depth. Similar to both a bookshelf and, depending on size, a side table, an etagere features shelves that may display ornaments and fanciful objects. These shelves were typically open on all sides, providing a multitude of viewing angles and the possibility of free-standing displays.

Regardless of whatever items they had on display, antique etageres themselves were designed to be quite intricate and elegant on their own. Some of the most splendid exemplars featured many different materials, from exotic hardwood to gilded brass.

French Etagere- Styylish
French Etagere- Now available on Styylish

This French Etagere, made around 1850, is an excellent example of what an etagere came to be. Crafted in the monarchist revival period of mid-19th century France, it embodies all the elements you would expect from an etagere of the 18th century. Indeed, in many ways, it was modeled after Baroque originals.

Note the intricate marquetry, the carefully gilded brass features, and the delicate (but functional) shelves. This piece is the best of what antique furniture has to offer.

The Origins of Antique Etageres

In the mid-18th century, France was at the height of its glory. At the time the etagere was first designed, the long-reigning Louis XV inhabited the most famous palace on Earth. Versailles, designed by his grandfather and predecessor, Louis XIV, the Sun King, set a new standard for lavish, opulent power design.

It would have been in this very palace that the etagere, itself a refined object, would have been used to display trinkets and treasures of the royal court.

The 19th Century Reach of the Antique Etagere

The popularity of etageres expanded through the beginning of the 19th century and specifically became associated with Victorian decorative arts. Victorian-era households had a strong appreciation for small trinkets, which supported the staying power of this particular furniture item. The victorian style emerged from the United Kingdom and impacted Europe from 1837 to 1901, defined by Queen Victoria’s reign as monarch.

The Victorian era is known for indulgences in a grand excess of ornament, and a creative combination of multiple revival styles from regions all over the globe. Victorian decorative arts led to interior spaces that were designed for showcasing wealth and entertaining guests. You can spot Asian and Middle Eastern influence, and romanticism and mysticism in artwork and design.

It was at this time that sellers of chic furniture took new trends into account. With each sale, furniture spread out from the palace and into aristocratic and merchant homes. No longer was the King (or Queen) the only major customer.

Victorian Aristocracy: Collectibles on Display

Antique etageres suited the aristocratic Victorian household perfectly. These families developed a fondness for collecting unique items. Households used etageres to present and show off their most beautiful treasures. On an etagere, each shelf resembles a “stage” for this exact reason.

The wealthiest individuals were willing to pay a high price for these units, unabashedly desiring to showcase as much brilliant opulence as possible. Further expanding the revival of the etagere, Victorians wanted their shelving adorned. Antique etageres became gilded and made of marble or mirrors, or woods with heavier appearances, such as mahogany. They took more central focus in the rooms, making them decorative pieces themselves.

English Regency Etagere- Styylish
English Regency Etagere- ow available on Styylish

This Antique English Regency Etagere, a direct precedent of Victorian design, is emblematic of high-quality, high-end English values of the early 19th century. The rich mahogany, feet details, and brass drawer pull reveal sophistication and appreciation for fine things.

Vintage Etageres: A Mid-Century Revival

After the Victorian era, another resurgence of popularity came for the etagere. American decorator Billy Baldwin began a collaboration with the furniture studio Frederick P. Victoria & Sons to create etageres for Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers apartment.

The heaviness of built-in bookshelves for Baldwin was unappealing, especially considering that Porter wanted the flexibility to move his furniture to future homes. Baldwin got to work designing an etagere with a tubular brass frame and mahogany shelves. The entire piece was airy and elegant, and the 1954 design is now a significant example of a vintage etagere.

The Value of an Etagere Today

Aside from expanded knowledge of vintage and antique etageres in history, there is much value to owning an etagere in the 21st century.

We know how common it is to struggle with storing and handling precious, valuable items. Many people have small trinkets and memorabilia they hold dear but aren’t sure where to keep them. Photos with loved ones, glass ornaments, figurine gifts, music boxes, or family heirloom jewelry could all fall into this category.

While we treasure these items so dearly, they might often feel too precious to keep out with our everyday items. That’s how things end up in storage bins or tucked away on a top shelf of the closet.

Mid-Century Modern Etagere - Styylish
Mid Century Modern Etagere- Now available on Styylish

Instead, imagine this Mid-Century Modern Etagere, with a brass frame and leather shelving. Inspired in the same era as Billy Baldwin’s Cole Porter Etagere, it is a refined, open design that invites the user to exhibit their dearest items.  Combine it with other pieces of the period (ones featuring chrome finishes, even) or let the object stand on its own in a modern space.

The Ultimate Question: Bookcase or Etagere?

Though seeming interchangeable, bookcases and etageres are not the same. An etagere displays and showcases precious items, while a bookcase prioritizes storage and convenience, keeping collections out of the way.

Sometimes, the bulky nature of a bookcase can overpower the objects on display, creating too much weight in a room. In other moments, a functional piece like this Secretary Desk with Bookcase, could become the centerpiece of a room.

Antique Secretary Desk with bookcase- styylish
An Antique secretary desk with bookcase – available now on Styylish

Consider for yourself the value of an etagere. Appreciation for your beloved pieces will increase exponentially if you devote space to keeping them in view. While we may not be Victorian-era aristocrats collecting expensive novelties, we can take a play out of their book.

Antique Etagere: Finding a Stage for Your Treasures

This exploration might lead you to rethink how you consider bookcases, even. Something like this Modern Design Bookcase from Milla and Milli could be viewed as your own etagere. How can you best appreciate the items you own by thoughtful display on these shelves? Would you consider them “stages” perhaps, for your most beloved memories?

Modern Design Bookcase- Eternel- Styylish
Modern Design Bookcase- Now available on Styylish

Regardless of which era you draw your personal taste from, etageres have stood the test of time, and found their place in many decades. This is true of many timeless furniture items you’ll seek out for your own home decorating; so continue exploring!

You can read more in-depth about design periods that pique your interest and then directly purchase pieces in their original condition, right here on Browse our site and turn the page on your old interior: you’ll find the right pieces to help you transform your home.

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