Beyond the Looking Glass: Mirrors in Furniture

October 13 2009, 1:07pm

Interior designer Jamie Drake has said “The first thing I’d buy for a glamorous room is a mirrored piece of furniture.” Mirrors engraved with scenes from the hunt were first known to be used within furniture in the drawer fronts of 17th century South German table cabinets. They were incorporated as part of the exploration and display of precious materials within decorative arts objects and have since been applied to many types of furniture in varying degrees throughout history, including chairs, bookcases and commodes. Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 1 depicts an English bookcase, circa 1760, formerly in the Carlton Hobbs collection, whose doors are set with sixty Chinese mirror paintings, an unprecedented design element. The specifically-constructed glass sections were sent all the way to China from England to be hand painted before being inserted into their intended spaces. A pair of Italian chinoiserie armchairs circa 1810, also previously part of the Carlton Hobbs collection, have backs which enclose geometric patterns set with eight shaped panels of reverse painted glass (figure 2). Figure 3 A more unusual item to be applied with mirror glass is an Indian howdah circa 1840, currently on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum (figure 3). A howdah is a carriage-like compartment strapped to the back of an elephant and was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a firing platform in hunting, or as a mode of transportation to carry the wealthy during British Colonial rule. (You can read more about this in our July 23rd blog, “Howdah You Hunt a Tiger?”) One should imagine the glint of a jungle procession in a mirrored carriage such as this, with the sun reflecting a maharajah’s presence at all angles! Moving a century forward, an engraved glass mounted center table currently in the Carlton Hobbs inventory (figure 4, detail), circa 1925, anticipates the trend for glass and mirrored furniture that would develop later on in the Art Deco period. In this example the piece is entirely veneered with mirror glass, adding lightness and allowing the piece to integrate easily with its surrounding color scheme. Like other pieces of the period, by such designers as Jules Leleu, the table takes inspiration from 18th and 19th century French design, in this case the work of Joseph Canabas, and brings it up to date with alterations of form and materials used. This evolved into more streamlined mirrored pieces, like this Dressing Table in the V&A designed by Robert Block circa 1935 (figure 5). Mirrored furniture can play tricks on the eye by enhancing the sense of light and space within a room or act as a sleek and modern foil to pieces of antique furniture, adding sparkle and glamour to any interior scheme.

Figure 4 Detail of top. Figure 5