Armoire Bureaucracy

    Designing a piece of furniture is not unlike having an odd jacket or suit made.  The urge to leap into the exciting details of buttons and exuberant linings of the latter mirrors the fawning over solid brass hinges, campaign hardware and knobs that are the finishing touches of the former.  Impatience is ill-rewarded in both instances.  Form, proportion and basic design must first be firmly established and only then should the lily be subtly gilded.  

    Oh how satisfying those finishing touches can be though!  It was a happy realization that my modular armoire almost required a linear, undecorated design as I have long admired campaign style furniture.  These officer’s trunks and cases, desks and bureaus are simply constructed of sturdy hardwoods, the only embellishments coming from brass reinforcing hardware.  As it happened, my bedside tables were already in the campaign style, so a towering armoire was sure to compliment.  And it does, but at considerable personal effort in sourcing convincing solid brass hinges, corner braces and pulls.  

    Interior hardware was another trial entirely.  Finding a sturdy brass tube with matching flanges as a clothes bar was not an easy task.  Plenty of brass-plated versions exist, but fear of flakes raining down on the shoulders and lapels of my clothes like glittering dandruff had me commissioning a solid brass tube from a distant Canadian foundry.  I hacksawed it to precise length, and installed a steel tube snugly within so as to prevent even the faintest sagging under the significant weight of coat hangers and clothes. 

    The problem with storage generally is things like suits and shirts, sweaters and shoes receive the prime real estate, while belts, braces (suspenders) and ties are left to divide the less desirable nooks and crannies.  Neglected accessories are a sad sight, so rather than hastily tacking a tie rack somewhere I am still mulling my options.  I have found some tasteful solid brass strips, each with twenty pegs.  I’m stumped where to install them though; on the inside of the doors will mean constant fear of clamping a foulard when closing the armoire, but hung on an inside wall will bite into the linear storage space.  I will need all 101.4 inches.  

    I joked with a friend helping me move the thing the other day that, should I have to scramble, I could load the two modular pieces of the armoire, fully loaded with clothes, into the back of a truck and be gone within the hour.  I suppose a similar scenario is what motivated the design of campaign style furniture in the first place.    It’s a romantic, though in my case irrelevant, thought.  The true mobility of this design is less concrete; it’s the investment in storage that is untethered to a single place—quite unlike the fortune people are happy to pour into closet space.

Armoire So Far

    An expanding family, a move, a renovation—the storage arrangement of one’s clothes is at the mercy of these and other changes.  I have watched as my wearables have been shunted from a master closet to a spare bedroom closet (following marriage), to an office closet (following our firstborn) to a relative state of homelessness (following our second child).  Perhaps I set the wrong precedent by forfeiting any closet space from the start; I displayed generosity and a willingness to compromise where I should have been mean and stubborn with what limited space there was.  My clothes have suffered the strain of this forced exile, with the dusty shoulders and flattened lapels to show.  

    Never overly fond of closets to start, some time back I decided on another, better solution: an armoire.  A five minute spin around the internet revealed two problems.  One: though modest, no armoire exists that would effectively contain my collection of suits, odd jackets, trousers and shirts while still allowing for future growth.  And two, that the largest specimens would not negotiate the dropped ceiling and sharp turns of the hallway leading to the master bedroom.  A built-in seemed the only option until, while discussing designs with a carpenter, I hit upon the idea of an "armoire" constructed in two modular sections that could be stacked to appear as one.  It was a eureka moment, affording ample space (100 linear inches) for hanging clothes while maintaining relative mobility in the event of a future move.  Considering the rough treatment of my belongings since bachelorhood, it was important to me that these two trunk-like sections could be stacked, placed adjacent, back-to-back, or across the room from one another without losing their charm.  Should I be banished to some shed one day, my trunks will happily follow.

    And all went well, from drawing up rough plans to selecting the very beautiful sapele wood from which the armoire would be constructed.  I launched my carpenter into the project with a breezy attitude: just a couple of stackable boxes, no?  I don’t have to explain to more knowledgeable readers just how naive I must have sounded.  No sooner did the carpenter arrive to begin work did the questions start appearing out of clouds of sawdust: did I want the grain to run vertically or horizontally?  Should the doors hang inside or outside the case?  Do I want standard, concealed or action hinges?  What to do about a base?

    Several weeks later (interrupted by a poorly timed holiday) we are nearing completion and I am happy that my displaced clothes seem to have a lovely home within grasp.  Below are some photos of the progress.  Once installed I will post some more thoughts on stylistic choices, the advantages of custom furniture, the problems with storage generally, and other organizational desiderata, along with another gallery of well-lit vanity shots.

The Constant Scavenger

Who are you calling trivial?  This sandstone fragment now conveniently displays matches.  Pity people no longer smoke.

Who are you calling trivial?  This sandstone fragment now conveniently displays matches.  Pity people no longer smoke.

    I have a weakness for found objects.  I am unpleasant walking company, pausing every few blocks to hover silently over some unusual stone or scrap of metal.  My wife has more than once walked ahead while I have stood contemplating logistics.  Abandoned sections of drainage pipes have tempted me (they make excellent planters) and I have watched sadly as ornamental terra cotta has been unceremoniously trucked away like ordinary debris.

    My tastes in junk are influenced by my environment—a large city.  In college this meant street signs which had “fallen.”  These are long gone, replaced by more subtle objects.  I am drawn to those that, with imagination or fiddling, can serve some trivial purpose in the home.  When  a historical brownstone on my block was renovated last summer, the sidewalk suddenly became fertile ground.  I was tempted by a copper gutter bracket, beautifully green with oxidization, but settled instead for a cylindrical piece of red sandstone that had once held an iron balustrade.  With some scrubbing and a felt base our coffee table now has a handsome (and largely unused) match holder.  

    If one lives by the sea, acquiring driftwood seems inevitable.  The best examples are uniformly taupe, cured by salt and sand, with an almost sueded surface.  I had an eye as a boy for finding the good stuff, and to this day I cannot go to the beach without scanning the high tide mark.   Though I don’t know what I would do if I found a keeper; when driftwood leaves the shore it loses its allure.  A collection of grey wood washed over in hard city light is always sad, no matter how artfully arranged on a mantel.

    That’s not to say interesting wood is unavailable in urbis. It’s worth taking a walk after a storm in search of felled trees.  If it hasn’t blocked a road, a crew will generally appear a day or so later, and I find if asked politely, the fellow with the chainsaw will usually oblige.  Large cross sections of trunk or thick branch make ideal occasional stools.  Another good time to hunt is following Christmas.  I have several Douglas fur trunks curing on my balcony; whether they will be made into uncomfortable furniture or resinous hiking staffs has not yet been decided.  

Oh, the irony!  At 75¢/pound these solid aluminum parts were likely the most valuable components of the outdated processors from which they were salvaged.

Oh, the irony!  At 75¢/pound these solid aluminum parts were likely the most valuable components of the outdated processors from which they were salvaged.

    And then there is the dumpster.  I must admit, it takes a certain confidence to go through the garbage in your own neighborhood, however worthwhile the fruits.  I once rescued a pristine fox fur coat.  Not to wear, or sell, or do anything with really; I just couldn’t bear the thought of it in a landfill.  I have a far more pedestrian find though.  A business tenant in our building dumped several old computers one day, many shattering upon impact.  Like a cracked quartz geode, one of the splintered processing towers revealed a number of cooling elements that had been milled into intricate shapes from solid aluminum.  I plucked them out, and after several days of deliberation, decided they should be epoxied together to make a modernist paperweight.

    My most cherished of these objects is an oblong stone I found as a boy deep in a Welsh forest.  I had spent that summer visiting my cousins in Flintshire which meant most of the month took place exploring the old woods near their home.  On the second to last day we spotted something of an unnatural line in the shallows of a fast moving brook.  We fished it out and brought it home.  That night and most of the following day was spent in conjecture about what it could be; my memory might be influenced by the youthful enthusiasm of the moment, but I seem to recall parents, uncles and sage locals offering opinions ranging from depleted uranium to a Medieval lintel.  In a solemn moment before I left, my cousin decided I should return to the US with the thing.  To this day the object occupies our home as we see fit, from window ledges to sideboards, and I’m thrilled to report still moves friends and family to heated debate. 

The search for an answer weighs heavily upon all who encounter the  Welsh Mystery Object.

The search for an answer weighs heavily upon all who encounter the Welsh Mystery Object.

Lost in (Closet) Space

And to think: this built-in once held some very questionable pajamas in Barney's haberdashery department.    

And to think: this built-in once held some very questionable pajamas in Barney's haberdashery department.    

    Of the tropes employed by those house-hunting shows that clog cable in the evening, the most tiresome must surely be the one in which the wife complains to the husband about a lack of closet space in some prospective home and the husband, who inevitably likes the house because of the finished basement, turns to the camera, eyes rolling, and mumbles something about too many shoes anyway...  There are several things wrong with this.  To begin, as long as they are worn, there is no such thing as too many shoes.  Also, finished basements are always drafty and acoustically poor no matter how many neon beer signs are installed.  A cobwebbed wine cellar would be much better.  

    The biggest problem though is that these dim souls never think to suggest the solution to the problem: furniture.  Perhaps they are unaware that an entire sub-genre exists dedicated to the storage of clothing.  They might mollify their wives with a wink and a promise to find a grand old armoire.  Or a flame-mahogany chest of drawers.  A silk-lined lingerie tower?  A brass-inlaid steamer trunk?  I could go on, but I think the point is sufficiently made: closets aren’t the only players in storage.   

    Of course this is heresy for most people.  In fact, closets are so important to real-estate agents, they’ve added the word “space” to the end.  Grammatically, this is unnecessary; existentially, the closet (a small room with some shelves) has been elevated to the status of deal-breaker/maker.  Good for closets, perhaps, but bad for style generally.  

    Surely the root of the issue is that we have too much.  This is a problem hardly limited to clothes; unwearable things have a nasty habit of loitering in closets.  But if we focus for a moment on the wearable stuff, I think we generally find plenty of fat too.  I will avoid any prescriptions of how many of what one should have if one is a traveling salesman versus a downtown lawyer.  Most are aware of their needs.  I am, however, a firm proponent of the practical wardrobe.  Not monastic austerity--just honest editing.  The real demons of practical wardrobes are those garments we regard with potential, or, worse, sentimentality.  Garments that possess a vague sense of importance and little else.  And it is closets--no, closet space-- that encourages the gathering of all this unwelcome debris.   

    But what does this all have to do with style?  The answer is twofold.  One, dressing isn’t always an easy task.  Perhaps one is in a hurry, or attending some social function where clothes must be more carefully selected than usual.  It has always seemed to me that too great a variety is perilous in these scenarios.  When the variables are reduced and well organized, dressing under duress is considerably easier.    The second answer is perhaps more romantic: a beautiful armoire neatly hung with well-fitting suits can be a magnificent thing.  The same may be said of a sturdy bow-front chest containing carefully folded shirts and sweaters.  Or a brass rack with well polished shoes, each more gem-like than the last.  

    My contribution is more modest.  Some years ago when the Barney’s around the corner was moving, they decided to sell the shop’s fixtures and furniture. Using a crow bar and a hand-saw, I liberated a display unit from the haberdashery department.  After considerable wedging, sanding and painting I have a very satisfying place to hang suits.  The drawers hold socks, and the cupboard luggage.  The surface beneath the suits has indentations where I stack handkerchiefs and gloves and there’s a spot for brushes and shoehorns.  The best feature though is its size--large enough for my needs, but too small for anything extraneous.  Closet space can go boil an egg.  

Deep space: 10,000 light years from anything remotely elegant.

Deep space: 10,000 light years from anything remotely elegant.