6 Decorative Furniture Elements You've Seen But Can't Name

From Caryatids to Ormolu and Tambours to Marquetry

Antique furniture is known for decorative elements that make pieces both unique and valuable. There are a number of them that have unique names most people don’t know. Here are five terms to impress your friends with the next time you’re out antiquing together.

  • 01 of 06


    French Empire Bronze Mounted Dresser With Full Female Form Caryatids on Each Side

    Pia's Antique Gallery on RubyLane.com

    The term caryatid (pronounced care-ee-ah-tid) describes human figure, usually female, incorporated as a decorative support in furniture. The name is derived from ancient Greek architecture and named for the women of Caryae (on the losing side of a war, they were enslaved by the Greeks and forced to carry heavy burdens on their heads, according to legend.) These elements date back to the Renaissance but are also found in Empire, Regency and other ornate Neoclassical furniture styles dating to the late 18th and early 19th century. They can be used as table legs, bed posts, cabinet stands, and the like. 

  • 02 of 06


    Gadrooning on the Apron of a Chippendale Tea Table, c. 1755-1765


    This decorative carving technique was used on surface edges, such as the bottom of a table. It has a row of fluted or reeded bands that overlap, sometimes in a rope-like way, that causes a spiral or spinning effect. It was first used on Roman furniture and then revived again during the Renaissance. It was also frequently incorporated in Neo-Classical furniture design, along with Empire, and Greek Revival pieces. The technique was used to give a sense of motion to solid pieces of furniture. Gadrooning can be found on other types of antiques made of metals, such as silver, as well.

  • 03 of 06


    Turkish Fainting Couch


    The example here has tassel gallooning surrounding the bottom of a daybed, but the term applies to any type of trimming on the edge of furniture upholstery. Gallooning can be braided or made of lace or ribbon, but it usually consists of luxurious materials like gold or silver metallic thread or silk embroidered elements. It was first used in the 17th century but is frequently seen on Baroque and late Victorian furniture examples as a final sumptuous touch to velvet and brocade upholstered pieces. 

  • 04 of 06


    George III style mahogany Hepplewhite chair, ca 1770-1780. United Kingdom, 18th century.
    De Agostini Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

    Marquetry is a decorative technique where pieces of material (such as wood, ivory, or shell) of different colors are inserted into the surface wood veneer to form intricate patterns such as scrolls or flowers. Found in furniture or decorative accessories made of wood, and was prevalent in the Federal period. Many Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture designs employ marquetry as a decorative element.  

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06


    Side Table Featuring Ormolu Mounts

    Rocor/Flickr CC 2.0  

    This type of embellishment is made of a metal alloy that is gilded to resemble gold, and it often acquires a beautiful and rich brass-like patina as it ages. Ormolu is applied to edges and corners as decorative ornamentation, not only in furniture but to other types of fine antiques as well. It also offers a bit of protection to corners to prevent edge wear over time. Common motifs include ribbons, bows, leaves, and florets. It was widely used in Empire and Regency pieces.

  • 06 of 06


    Federal Desk With Two Tambour Doors, c. 1785-1795


    Most often found on roll top desks, a tambour is a flexible door or lid that is made of narrow wood slats. They are attached to heavy fabric like canvas, often with glue, and can be in either a horizontal or vertical orientation. The edges of the fabric are set into grooves within a piece of furniture. When it lifts or is moved from side to side, the fabric rolls around a cylinder hidden within the furniture piece.

    The tambour was first used in France in the 1760s (the word is French for "drum") and incorporated into furniture designed by Hepplewhite as well. When used to conceal the inner workings of a roll-top desk, quality examples usually have two handles on either side of the tambour to help you pull down the heavy lid with ease. These retreating doors can also be found on other styles of desks (like the one shown here with a tambour on each side), case furniture like cabinets and washstands, and have also been used on lap writing desks.

    Special thanks to contributing writer Troy Segal for her assistance in compiling these terms.