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Cabinetry has a rich history and contains a variety of styles and purposes. The term “cabinet” is derived from the French “cabin,” meaning a room or chamber. The -et suffix means “small.”
Around the world, cultures have developed different designs and methods of cabinetmaking. In China, for hundreds of years, wooden cabinets have been built without nails or glue. Craftsmen used perfectly shaped wooden joinery to fit pieces together. Heavily lacquered surfaces and inlay work with mother of pearl are some design themes in traditional Chinese cabinetry.
Cabinetmaking became a significant artform in Europe in the 17th century. Furniture designers published catalogues of different cabinet styles and options. Since these pieces were all handmade, however, they were unaffordable for most. After industrialization, cabinets became more accessible and styles changed to fit each era.
There are many styles of cabinets, made to fit different purposes and spaces. These are some of the most important categories to know:
A cabinet’s value is affected by several factors. The condition is very important. Surfaces and finishes should be free of damage like stains and fading from the sun. Wood should be free of warping and cracking from humidity and temperature fluctuations. If repairs have been done, they should be in line with the original design of the piece, and using consistent materials. Missing parts or broken pieces will detract from the value of a piece. Mechanical details such as hinges or drawer shafts should be in good working condition.
Rarity affects the value of a cabinet. Cabinets by well-known manufacturers and from early historical periods are more collectible.
The materials used will also affect the price of the cabinet. High quality hardwoods like mahogany, oak, maple, teak, and walnut add value to the piece.
Some of the most expensive cabinetry is connected to famous designers. Perhaps the best known early cabinet maker was André-Charles Boulle. Working in France in the 17th-18th centuries, his style of furniture was very influential, and became known as “Boulle work.” His cabinetry was known for its combination of curved surfaces, dark wood, and bright gold detailing. One of his major contributions to furniture design was the way he used marquetry, or inlay work. His pieces today sit in the Palace of Versailles and Windsor Castle, among other places. A pair of Boulle-made cabinets adorned with gilt figures of Socrates and Aspasia sold for $2,115,025 at Christie’s in 2008.
In more modern cabinetry, an unusual wedding cabinet painted by the artist Li Shan sold for $28,125 in 2011. The original cabinet is traditional red, but the artist painted a large portrait of Mao Zedong on the front.
Leah Illingworth is a content specialist here at Mearto. She loves learning and writing about art and antiques each day in addition to exploring the history and stories behind art movements and objects.