Posted on October 30 2020
By Carleton Varney- Special to the Palm Beach Daily News
Remember the Irish dresser, that pine cabinet with upper shelves for displaying dishware?
It was the one with the perfect recess to display teacups, saucers, plates, glasses, rosary beads, perhaps even the family prayer book. You could find in it just about everything that pleased the Irish family to have in their kitchen, viewed by all who entered the home for a cup of tea and a scone, or a slice of bread and a bowl of soup on a rainy day.
While I was not around on those rainy days of Irish yore, I must confess that I do own a pine Irish dresser, which I keep in my family kitchen in Limerick. It holds silver pieces and copper jugs, as well as candle holders and cups. There are even some family pictures, especially ones of my grandson, Bowie.
The Irish dresser was the piece that I believe inspired the breakfronts found in living rooms and dining rooms of the 1950s and '60s and found in some homes to this day.
Today, such pieces are referred to by decorators as “brown” furniture, and many decorators now consider them passe. Yet I have been in several homes in South Florida that have a glass-door mahogany breakfront filled with a display of Royal Copenhagen or another beautiful set of fine china.
The upper shelf displays are usually spare, the better to show off the fine details of each piece and the breakfront’s back wall lined with a rich velvet or French damask. Oh, what a great place to show off the family china.
Younger generations, however, seem to be saying goodbye to the Irish dresser and the mahogany breakfront, which were once the focal point of so many rooms. And what is taking their place? I hope it’s not a big, flat-screen television.
So what seems to be the fate of mahogany-finished dining room furniture in today’s world? Family members who inherit a dark-wood breakfront are apt to repaint it white with blue trim, or even pale apricot with white trim. Now I’m not saying that the day of brown is over, but going with a lighter look seems to be today’s in-vogue way.
The china pieces and porcelain accessories are likely to get packed away, maybe forever. I’ve noticed more and more china sets are appearing on the auction blocks at Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
But there’s still a place for that family china, especially if the person who inherited it is style conscious. In some homes, such pieces are displayed on “floating” glass shelves mounted to walls, perhaps with a Dale Chihuly glass accessory or a bronze sculpture by one of the greatest modern sculptors, Henry Moore (or at least a good copy). There is nothing wrong with a mix of old and new. I believe even the most contemporary-style home can use a piece or two of historical interest to enliven the look.
While today’s furniture manufacturers are not big on showing new styles of kitchen breakfronts, they are presenting interesting furnishings that serve the same display function in a smaller and, perhaps, more hip way. Perhaps a pagoda metal étagère from Dr. Livingston I Presume of Dallas would be a perfect selection. Or a brass standing piece in the bamboo manner might be a fine choice for a smaller living space.
Live with the things you love, I say.