Defining Confusing Antique Furniture Terms

Eastlake sofa and chairs with antique furnishings in an upstairs room

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Shopping for antique furniture can be exciting and fun, but with all the different terminology out there, it can be confusing too. For instance, do you know the difference between a buffet and a sideboard?

Buffet vs. Sideboard

These two terms are used interchangeably quite often and for good reason. They're essentially the same thing. The French actually define a buffet as a small sideboard used for storing dishes. A buffet might be a little smaller than a sideboard, or credenza, but it serves basically the same purpose.

In both pieces, dishes and serving utensils are stored below with a flat surface above to display and serve prepared food. Some buffets and sideboards feature large mirrored backs with display shelves attached while others have no back at all. The features incorporated depend on the period and styling of the piece.

Louis Philippe style ebony sideboard with inlays
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Highboy vs. Chiffonier vs. Chest of Drawers

In the bedroom, some wonder whether they own a highboy, a chiffonier, or simply a chest of drawers. Well, since a highboy amounts to being a tall chest with a legged base and a chiffonier is a high narrow chest, they're both technically chests of drawers. The chiffonier sometimes has a swivel (or small cheval) mirror attached to the top as well.

With little closet and storage space built into most period homes, the more drawers a chest held the better for the owner. To meet the storage demands of modern consumers, furniture makers often emulate the styling of Colonial highboys and American oak chiffoniers when reproducing traditional styles sold in furniture stores today.

Japanese black lacquer highboy and cabinets
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Armoires vs. Wardrobes

Originally produced in medieval times to store armor (hence the similar-sounding name), these lofty pieces find a place in every room of the house. Whether new or old, the armoire's traditional role of adding storage space for clothing has expanded to holding everything from electronics to linens.

As with large chests of drawers, the armoire added storage capacity in the form of a free-standing closet where clothes could be hung. Today, the armoire is prized for its decorative features as much as its versatile functionality.

You may be wondering about the difference between an armoire and a wardrobe at this point. There isn’t all that much difference; they both have doors and contain a rod for hanging clothing. An armoire made for bedroom use tends to be a little larger and perhaps a bit more ornate, while a wardrobe possesses a more streamlined look. This difference in terminology seems to reflect the seller's preference more than anything since Webster's actually defines an armoire as a type of wardrobe.

Some English wardrobes designed for gentlemen contained space for hanging clothing on one side and labeled, or "fitted," compartments for accessories on the other side, all hidden behind sleek double doors. These pieces, most manufactured during the early 20th century, don't have a good deal of decorative flare but seem to be gaining popularity since they're still in the affordable price range.

Antique armoire in bedroom
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Don’t Forget the Chifforobe

Just to add a little more flame to the discussion, we'll throw the tried and true chifforobe into the mix. This versatile piece of furniture combines the wardrobe and the chest of drawers for even more versatility packed into one furniture item.

Chifforobes feature a clothes cabinet with a door built on to a small chest of drawers that is usually topped with a swivel mirror, although some have a small mirrored door instead. These versatile pieces served their owners well in small bedrooms, and they’re still popular with the space-conscious decorator today.

It's interesting to compare the different names similar furniture items have taken on over the years. Unless you're planning a career in the antique business, however, keeping track of all these terms isn't nearly as important as deciding what you like and how you'll enjoy your antique furniture in your home.