NEW YORK – If you ask most Americans to define commode, they’ll tell you it’s a flush toilet. Period. But to those familiar with antique furniture, the word commode has an entirely different meaning – several meanings in fact. First, a bit of etymology: commode comes from the French word for “convenient” or “suitable” and was derived from the Latin adjective “commodus,” which means the same thing. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition reads: “a piece of furniture with drawers and shelves; in the bedroom, a sort of elaborate chest of drawers.”
That pretty much describes a French commode. The word first crept into the vocabulary of French furniture around 1700. Then, it was a cabinet (or chest of drawers), typically wider than it was tall and raised on high or low legs. Commodes were made by French ebenistes (cabinetmakers) who used beautiful wood complemented with ormolu (gilt-bronze drawer pulls). The finishing touch was often a marble slab top, selected to match the marble of a home’s chimneypiece. Such commodes are highly collectible today and can command high prices.
Meanwhile, in England (where commode is the standard term for a commode chair, often on wheels, enclosing a chamber pot, used in hospitals and in the homes of invalids), the word commode crept into cabinetmaker’s parlance in London by the mid-18th century. It was used to describe chests of drawers with gracefully curved fronts, sometimes with shaped sides as well. It was called a commode since the finished product was perceived as being “in the French taste.” It was later expanded to describe any piece of furniture with a serpentine front, such as a dressing table, or even a chair seat. These old British commodes are also highly prized by collectors.
“French and English aesthetics in the 17th and 18th centuries are very different from each other,” said Karen Rigdon, the Silver & Decorative Arts Director at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Choosing one over the other would include personal preference, and consideration of the setting/feeling/ambiance being created. In general, France is considered to have the greatest furniture makers during that time period. There was significant migration in the 18th century.”
Rigdon added, “France was at the center welcoming a great influx of talent from surrounding countries. A level of excellence was achieved in the late 18th century that surpassed earlier work seen in the quality of cabinet making and the refinement of surfaces including marquetry, parquetry and lacquered surfaces, as well as in the decorative/protective gilt bronze mounts.”
Andrew Holter of Nye & Company Auctioneers in Bloomfield, New Jersey, said it certainly wouldn’t be unusual to think of furniture in the 18th century as a vehicle to display a patron’s wealth and social standing. “It’s the modern-day equivalent of parking your Ferrari or Bentley in your driveway,” he observed. “Both scream, ‘I have arrived and I want the world to not only know it, but see it.’ For the 18th century elite, furniture went beyond being simply utilitarian and served as a way to express a patron’s level of sophistication and fashion.”
Commodes were a popular form of furniture both because of their practicality, but also because they were great objects to express one’s tastes and preferences, Holter pointed out. “Ordering furniture in the 18th century was like buying a computer online today. You start with a basic model and then you can add on lots of things. Cabinetmakers offered a variety of embellishments such as marble top versus a wood top, ormolu mounts versus no mounts, a straight fronted chest versus a reverse-serpentine versus a serpentine chest versus a blocked chest versus a bombé chest. You could request straight bracket feet, ogee bracket feet, a flaring French foot, a pad foot with cabriole legs or a claw-and-ball foot.”
Oftentimes, Holter said, these stylistic embellishments could help a specialist determine where a piece was made. “For example, depending on the stylistic period, French commodes often tend to be flashier or more vibrantly decorated than English commodes. For a Louis XV-style commode, you might expect to see asymmetrical gilt ormolu mounts, perhaps a marble top, wood veneered surfaces and a shaped front. English commodes made in the George II or III periods tend to be either carved from the solid or have slightly more restrained veneers. While you can find ormolu mounts on English furniture, they don’t tend to be as elaborate or as abundant on what are seen on French pieces.”
In terms of why a decorator might choose one style over another, Holter feels that would be based purely on the look they are trying to achieve. “Think Versailles verse Buckingham Palace,” he said. Both England and France make pieces that are of fabulous quality. However, the design aesthetic is slightly different.”
As to the current market value for commodes, Karen Rigdon said there continues to be rising value for signed 18th century examples from both France and England, putting them beyond the means of most people. However, she said, “Unsigned or unattributed commodes are both increasingly available and affordable. Over the last five to ten years, many commodes have come to market due to death, divorce and downsizing, during a craze for disposable furniture. Disposable furniture is easy to buy, and heavily marketed, impressing our minds. A mind shift is worthwhile.”
A sound 18th century English or French commode should be considered, Rigdon offered. “You can often buy excellent pieces for less than a new chest of drawers. This is certainly the case at auction. There is much added value. A well-made example will likely be a focal point in your home, adding character as well as stories of the hunt. If well-chosen and cared for, it will certainly at least hold its value during one’s lifetime, and possibly rise as new appreciation grows for 18th century craftsmanship. Include the next generation in your love, and your prized commode may still be in use in another 250 years.”
Holter said that generally speaking, the market for traditional furniture – whether it be English or French – has softened over the last 10-15 years. “The one thing that remains constant despite the highs and lows of the market is the demand for top quality pieces,” he said. “They have remained steadfast and strong. I think the short-term outlook for traditional furniture will remain steady and I am cautiously optimistic for the long-term outlook.”
Design aesthetics tend to swing in and out of fashion like a pendulum, Holter said. “While the current aesthetic is leaning toward a more modern style now, I am a firm believer that people will soon rediscover the quality, warmth and history that the more traditional pieces bring to the table. Additionally, in an era where we talk about the Green New Deal and the need to be green to save our planet, I say go green, buy antiques and you can feel confident that you are doing your part to recycle these treasures from our past.