A.M. from the 805 writes me that he has a vitrine that at first glance looks to come from the court of Louis XV. A closer look reveals the metal stripping which has been gold-plated is not the quality we'd expect from the 18th century. What is this thing? It is a thing to hold things.
I have a theory that people who are “stuff” people differ from “non-stuff” people. “Stuff people” invariably end up living with “non-stuff” people. You are on your way to marry a “non-stuff” person; when dating, visiting your little stuffed apartment, the experience is, for him, delightful, a peek into another world. He marvels what you can cram into such a small space, yet keep it all bright. He’s charmed that you know where everything is (my partner, one day, in my overflowing kitchen, asked me for a tiny eyeglass screwdriver, and I could find it immediately). He is thrilled that you have every book you ever read, filled with yellow Post-It notes, testaments to your intelligence and delightfully busy mind. Then you marry him and all of a sudden one weekend day he announces that he hates it all.
A.M.’s cabinet is made for a “stuff person” in the first quarter of the 20th century ladies liked to fill these displays, called vitrines, with little bits of “truc” (French for stuff) such as porcelain boxes, figures of glass birds, small powder vases, little souvenirs and bits of clay made by “early potter” kids. “Non-stuff” people have no idea why any of this exists, let alone achieving pride of place behind ceremonially locked glass doors. “Every object tells a story,” the “stuff person” will say. “Every object must have another home,” the partner pouts.
These vitrines were very popular during the first quarter of the 20th century when the interior decorating style was French. We inherited that taste from the Vanderbilts of Newport, RI. That was the style of the early 20th century upper class, and mediocre copies of furniture of that style trickled down the income ranks during a 20-year period.
This style called vitrine originated in the 18th century with the transformation of the Venetian standing sedan chair, a little elevator-sized vernis-martin (a technique of French lacquer finishing) and bronze mounted case in which the wealthy were carried through the muddy Venetian streets. Of course, so that rich attire could be seen, the conveyance was amply glazed with windows. When these were retired, the shape was discovered to be perfect for shelving and for display of stuff. The effect was Rococo and delicate and ornate. The bottom panels were painted with scenes of well-gowned coiffed ladies and foppish gentlemen. The original sedan chairs are worth quite a bit if they have their original little seats made for just one rear-end per trip, going at auction for $7,000. But once the style was converted to a tall display case, shelved, and reproduced in the late 19th to early 20th century, the style became hackneyed, to explain this transition as a fitting pun.
Today at auction, these French style late 19th early 20th century vitrines are worth only $300-400, if you can find a buyer. Few collect small billebots for display, or if they have, their partners complain so much about the clutter that they end up where my little billebots ended up – at Goodwill. Why is it that people, especially male people, claim they cannot think clearly in the presence of ubiquitous “stuff?” This speaks to me of the inadequacy of the male brain, dare I say. Such a flimsy instrument, that brain, to be thus confused by exterior “matter.”
But the male brain is not the only protestor. We have a new calling, the professional clutter therapist. Books such as Marie Kono’s The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying bestselling pride of space-taking at Chaucer’s checkout counter, enters the moneymaking self-help department. Trend forecaster James Wallman says the problem is Stuffocation, springing from the current obesity epidemic. Yet when I find myself moving into a new space, like the tide, the walls fill, the cupboards cram, the bookshelves impregnate. When my minimalist partner can’t take it anymore, attempts to give treasures to my late 20’s son meet with his screwed up “FaceTime” face and the new young negative: “Meh."
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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