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Cabinets of curiosity –why ‘the Instagram of the pre-digital world’ is making a comeback in home designs

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Bonaldo Cabinet De Curiosite from Lomi Design

Bonaldo Cabinet De Curiosite from Lomi Design

Cabinet from Design Shanghai

Cabinet from Design Shanghai

Cabinet from Habitat

Cabinet from Habitat

Laura Farrell

Laura Farrell

Industrial metal safari display cabinet from Melody Maison

Industrial metal safari display cabinet from Melody Maison

Lorna Donlon, artist in residence at UCD College of Science

Lorna Donlon, artist in residence at UCD College of Science

Sideboard and cabinet with pine drawers in vintage finish from Cuckooland

Sideboard and cabinet with pine drawers in vintage finish from Cuckooland

Dutchbone rustic wall cabinet from Woo Design

Dutchbone rustic wall cabinet from Woo Design

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Bonaldo Cabinet De Curiosite from Lomi Design

Sometimes a type of furniture from another era will make an unexpected comeback.

The chaise longue, for example, ought really to be extinct. So too should the four poster bed. Yet people love them and they both survive, reinvented for contemporary tastes. They probably appeal to something deep within us.

Now, the cabinet of curiosity is also undergoing a revival.

Born in the Italian Renaissance and popularised by the Victorians, the cabinet of curiosity is more of a concept than a specific piece of furniture.

“They ranged in size, from as small as a dedicated piece of furniture with multiple drawers or could stretch to the size of an entire room,” writes Giovanni Aloi of Sotheby’s.

“Drawers and shelves housed original objects acquired through long journeys to faraway lands.

"Every object offered an opportunity to tell a story about an epic adventure or, more often, to fabricate one.” The cabinet of curiosity was the Instagram of a pre-digital world.

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Cabinet from Habitat

Cabinet from Habitat

Cabinet from Habitat

Now that so much of life takes place online, people crave the physicality of objects and seek contemporary ways of displaying them.

“I like glass-fronted cabinets,” says Laura Farrell, interior designer. “They’ve been very maligned over recent years, especially in Ireland.”

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The Irish glass-fronted cabinet would typically be stuffed with Waterford crystal or china that was considered too good to use.

“When my grandmother died nobody wanted her glass-fronted cabinet and I couldn’t bear the thought of it being sent away, so I took it. It’s an old one, but now it’s full of modern treasures: Japanese teapots, silver trinket boxes, an Aladdin’s lamp, a Norwegian pewter bowl and three Lego models of birds.”

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Laura Farrell

Laura Farrell

Laura Farrell


For Farrell, the advantage of the cabinet is that it keeps everything behind glass which, being clear, allows her to colour co-ordinate her belongings with the rest of the room. It also gives a place to small meaningful items.

“The whole fashion is not to have little things around, but everyone normal has these bits and pieces from their lives and they should be celebrated.”

Contemporary curiosity cabinets range from the utterly splendiferous Bonaldo Cabinet de Curoisité, a modular shelving system with arched openings and breath-taking prices (€3,947 for a 120 cm wide unit from Lomi) to the modest Bundy pegboard (€99 from Woo Design).

More traditionally, the Shepton curio cabinet from Neptune (€1,660) is tall, slim and easy on floor space, while Neptune’s modular Chawton cabinet (from €3,490) can morph from a sideboard to a dresser to a bookcase, with glazed and un-glazed options.

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Sideboard and cabinet with pine drawers in vintage finish from Cuckooland

Sideboard and cabinet with pine drawers in vintage finish from Cuckooland

Sideboard and cabinet with pine drawers in vintage finish from Cuckooland


Woo Design has a wide range of styles from European brands ranging from the Dutchbone Iron Shelf system (€649) and the BePureHome Odd cabinet from (€469) to the James cabinet from Woood (€899).

At the affordable end of the spectrum, Ikea’s slim and elegant Rudsta cabinet (€85) has glass on four sides.

It’s equipped for wiring, so can be internally lit, and you can use magnets to display photos on its metal surfaces. Being lightweight and 155 cm high, it needs to be fixed to the wall. You can also use the surfaces that are already available in the home.

“Even as a child I loved the whole nature table thing at school,” says Farrell, whose sideboard has become a seasonal family display of natural curiosities: living plants, stones and fossils, and bog oak, along with a goldsmith’s scales. The collection is (mostly) contained within a classification drawer that came from a natural history museum.

“I’ve always been interested in how things are displayed in museums,” says Lorna Donlon, artist in residence at UCD College of Science.

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Lorna Donlon, artist in residence at UCD College of Science

Lorna Donlon, artist in residence at UCD College of Science

Lorna Donlon, artist in residence at UCD College of Science

“This notion that if you put something in a jar, put a label on it and display it in conjunction with other things it will tell a story.” Historic cabinets of curiosity were often scientific studies and Donlon is a science graduate as well as an artist.

“The processes of identifying, labelling and finding connections between items is an inherently scientific practice,” she says.

“It’s a bit of a shocking thing to say, but nature is inherently meaningless. Natural objects have totally different meanings depending on how you lay them out and how they relate to each other.”

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Cabinet from Design Shanghai

Cabinet from Design Shanghai

Cabinet from Design Shanghai


Her own installations, which she describes as Cabinets of Everyday Curiosities, are left unlabelled.

“People can rearrange them so that the objects relate to each other in different ways,” she says. “That way, the cabinet takes on a life of its own.”

She’s interested in how people arrange objects. Do they put the blue things together or do they put the things that are the same shape together? In terms of interiors, fluidity is what keeps collections interesting.

This is why the glass-fronted cabinet of untouchable “good china” feels stagnant, but a kitchen dresser, where items are displayed, but also moved around and touched, feels lively and dynamic.

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Industrial metal safari display cabinet from Melody Maison

Industrial metal safari display cabinet from Melody Maison

Industrial metal safari display cabinet from Melody Maison

The word “collector” conjures up an image of a rich person, probably male, with a magnificent home in which to display their collection. In real life, anybody can collect.

Holly Carr is a project manager at MediaConsult and lives in a small apartment in Salthill, Co Galway.

“I have a magpie soul and want to hang on to everything that crosses my path,” she says

“So I’m a collector but the big thing that influences me is that I’m a renter. The reality of the situation is that my collection has to reflect the changing nature of my home. It’s very selectively curated. What I hang on to has to be long-lasting, beautiful, and very dear to me.”

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Dutchbone rustic wall cabinet from Woo Design

Dutchbone rustic wall cabinet from Woo Design

Dutchbone rustic wall cabinet from Woo Design


While her ideal home would probably include a glass-fronted cabinet, for the moment her cabinet of curiosities is an alcove in her living room where she displays her collection of coffee memorabilia. “It’s really by virtue of not having space in the kitchen,” she admits.

“I have a huge collection of different types of coffee makers. The Aeropress makes the best coffee, but I also have French presses, a percolator and a beautiful chemex that looks like a fish bowl.

"I even have an old-fashioned hand grinder that I found in a charity shop. It’s beautiful but it takes forever to grind the beans.”

The size of her living space, and her inclination to buy for life where possible, has a strong bearing on what she collects.

“The percolator that I have is not particularly nice looking, but even if I went into a charity shop and saw a beautiful percolator I probably wouldn’t buy it. Because I already have one. And it works.”

See laurafarrell.ie, ucdartistsinresidence.com, lomi.ie, neptune.com, woodesign.ie, and ikea.com/ie
 


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