Antique Coffers: Europe’s First Cased Furniture

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Although we may feel that coffers, also known as chests or trunks, are ubiquitous today, they have an interesting place in the history of furniture. Coffers were the Europeans’ first cased pieces. They started out as six-sided boxes with a lift-off lid. As time went on, craftsmen included hinges and locks. In the 1500s, the design took another leap forward as woodworkers realized the value of paneled construction. By creating a frame that would hold panels of wood rather than six solid pieces, the material was allowed to expand and contract, reducing cracking and increasing durability. Further additions like tills, interior compartments created to store valuables, made coffers even more useful. Some tills even had hidden compartments. The latter part of 19th and early 20th century saw the rise of cedar chests for storage within the home. Coffers’ interesting dimensions and finishes, coupled with their functionality, make these lovely antiques useful and attractive for today’s home as well. Our customers use them in their entryways as seating options or storage, or as a decorative yet functional piece at the end of their beds. We are also seeing a trend of using coffers as a visual anchor below a mounted large screen TV.

Below we highlight some of our favorite antique coffers in our shop:

Antique French Blanket Coffer

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By the early 18th century, the coffer had evolved from a piece made for the upper class into furniture for the common folk too. This lovely country French coffer was created to add beauty and functionality to a home. What makes this piece unique is the paneling design. Rather than the typical squares, the paneling was shaped to fit the trim. Wrought iron hardware completes the exterior styling. Constructed out of chestnut, the interior includes a till and the lid has an overlaying trim that goes around the base when closed.

Leather Covered Antique Coffer with Brass Studs

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Circa 1870, this leather-bound coffer features head to head nail trim, a technique used to add design or pattern, on the top and on the face. The wood sub-structure was created first and then clad, or wrapped, with leather. Some coffers were also clad in canvas, and later vinyl, to offer a different aesthetic. This design also had the added benefit of allowing more flexibility in the type and tooling of the base wood, as it was not going to be seen. The interior of this coffer is lined in the original fabric.

French Leather Covered Antique Coffer with Domed Top

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Yet another example of the detailed styling created by leather clad and head-to-head studded trim, this coffer also features a domed top. This style was initially created to add extra interest and dimension. However, with the creation of steamer trunks, domes were intentionally added to the pieces so they could not be stacked! The domed versions had to be placed on top of a stack of trunks, and therefore were at less risk of damage. With its lovely trim work, we believe this coffer was used as a decorative piece rather than as a traveling trunk. The face features a swag design, while the top is adorned with scroll work. The piece also has hefty brass hardware and locks, and the rich brown leather has a stitched edging to provide a thick appearance.

Italian Gilt Antique Coffer

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The Italians sure knew how to use gilt, and this coffer is a fine example of their handiwork. Circa 1890, the sides feature an impressive deep relief carving of garlands of fruit, nuts, and pine cones, scrolled and edged with acanthus leaves throughout. The carved base wood was then covered with gesso, sized and gold leafed. Some of the red sizing can be seen through the gold leaf, adding even more visual interest to the piece. The top is made of wood that has been polychromed (painted) to look like marble. The long hinges are made out of iron crafted to support the large, unframed lid.

As you can see, our collection of antique coffers offers variety in style, design and history. The versatility of these pieces makes them a popular option for including antiques in today’s home décor. Whether placed at the end of a bed for blanket storage, or under a television as a visual anchor, these lovely pieces offer both unique styling and needed functionality. Questions about these or other coffers in our collection? Send us an email, or give us a call at 1-800-860-0109.

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