One of my favorite decorative art objects in the Museum’s permanent collection is actually a rather bewildering piece.
It’s an enormous Parlor Cabinet, designed and produced sometime between 1860-1870 by Alexandre Roux (1813-1866), a French-born cabinetmaker who moved to New York to open a successful furniture business.
At first glance, this is a monumental and pretty confusing object.
It has columns and pilasters, just like a building. Its top is a stepped pagoda, which gives it the effect of an Asian temple. And it’s big: five feet tall, over six feet wide and nearly two feet deep. The cabinet part, in the central portion is actually pretty small in comparison to the rest of the piece (look for the key hole in the door to find it).
So is it architecture or furniture? The answer is: both.
The cabinet is meant to look imposing and grand in the home, as a work of art in itself, while providing the useful function of displaying and storing objects. (Although it isn’t that useful: the cabinet part in the central portion is actually pretty small in comparison to the rest of the piece).
This cabinet is a great example of nineteenth-century eclectic taste. At that time, designers and consumers loved a mixture of progress, innovation, and eclecticism. They wanted to show off their good taste—their appreciation for the aesthetic styles of the past, which cut across all cultures, in combination with their embrace of modern methods of production. Thus, there are elements taken from the past—eighteenth-century porcelain mounts and Eastern pagodas. But the way it was made was to the moment. Roux’s craftsmen happily utilized machines for cutting veneers to save time, for example, rather than the painstaking handcrafting of the past.
As an aesthetic object, the Museum’s eclectic Parlor Cabinet has a lot to love. Its rosewood surfaces are beautiful, and its delicate, inlaid stringing softens its just-short-of-terrifying sharp edges. The marquetry (the inlaid pieces of wood that combine to create a picture on the cabinet door) is delightfully elegant. This all makes the cabinet both fashion-forward for the 1860s and still a stunner today.
You will see that we have dressed it up in the galleries (on view in the lower level decorative art gallery) with Chinese export Qing dynasty porcelain urns and a Wedgwood ca. 1855 figural group of The Three Graces.
What would you put on the cabinet in your parlor?
William Keyse Rudolph was the Museum’s curator of American art and Decorative arts, focusing on the Museum’s collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, silver, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries.