One would be hard pressed to find a home, flat or even a studio apartment without a case piece within. Though the terms “case pieces” and “case goods” may cause even the most décor-obsessed to stumble, these furnishings have been a vital part of the home for centuries. Simply put, consider any furnishing that is non-upholstered and has some semblance of a storage component may be properly termed a case piece.
The term originated in Le Garde-meuble, ancien et moderne — or the Furniture Repository, ancient and modern — a Parisian, bimonthly periodical that served as the interior design resource from 1839 to 1935. Leave it to the French to single-handedly define au courant furniture design for Europeans and wealthy Americans eager for an infusion of Gallic sensibility. A defining line was first drawn between seating and case pieces in pre-Revolutionary France, when guilds ruled furniture design and manufacturing. Chairs were strictly made by carpenters (menuisiers) and case pieces by cabinetmakers (ébénistes).
In the mid-19th-century, cabinetmakers were most occupied crafting dressers, chests, tables and bookshelves. They looked to the past to give their contemporary customers exactly what they wanted, drawing upon styles seen in royal households of the 16th-, 17th- and 18th-centuries. This period coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and cabinetmakers were able to appease their clients by making elaborate pieces at scale. They would mimic styles seen in the Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI eras by utilizing machines such as the newly invented steam-driven saw (for cutting veneers more evenly and efficiently). After cutting out rough forms with machinery, cabinetmakers would finish off each piece with hand carving. Thus, they were able to make, say, an elaborate Louis XV-style piece at a quicker clip.
The definition of a case piece hasn’t changed since the days Le Garde-meuble was in circulation (annual subscriptions could be had for 22 and a half Francs — about $83), but aesthetically the 21st-century has proved that most anything goes. To this end, we’ve provided a glossary of some of the various categories that fit within the case piece parameters on 1stdibs. If there’s one thing that rings true across the centuries, it is that everyone (nobleman and modern city dweller alike) can always do with a bit more storage.
Cabinets: The technical definition of a cabinet is fairly obvious: a set of drawers, fronted by at least one door and intended for storage. FYI, a cabinet is distinct from a cupboard in that it has drawers and/or pigeonholes; a cupboard merely has simple shelves. Cabinets originated in 16th-century Italy, but reached the height of their popularity in Louis XIV-era France and Restoration England. During that time, the word “cabinetmaker” was synonymous with “really good at making furniture.”
Vitrines: A cabinet with glass doors, or glass doors and walls, that is primarily used for the display of smaller objects.