Commode

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Commode, veneered with Japanese lacquer and japanned, by Bernard II van Risenburgh, Paris, c. 1750-60 Victoria and Albert Museum[1]
A Neoclassical Parisian marquetry commode of mid-1770s, showing vestiges of the Rococo in the stiffened cabriole legs and softened transitions between planes (Walters Art Museum)

A commode is any of several pieces of furniture. The word commode comes from the French word for "convenient" or "suitable", which in turn comes from the Latin adjective commodus, with similar meanings.

History and types[edit]

France[edit]

The term originates in the vocabulary of French furniture from about 1700. At that time, a commode meant a cabinet or chest of drawers, low enough so that it sat at the height of the dado rail (à hauteur d'appui). It was a piece of veneered case furniture much wider than it was high, raised on high or low legs[2] and with (commode à vantaux) or without enclosing drawers.

Commodes were made by ébénistes; the French word for "cabinet-maker" is derived from ebony, a black tropical hardwood notable as a foreign luxury. The beautiful wood was complemented with ormolu (gilt-bronze drawer pulls). The piece of furniture would be provided with a marble slab top[3] selected to match the marble of the chimneypiece.

A commode occupied a prominent position in the room for which it was intended: it stood against the pier between the windows,[4] in which case it would often be surmounted by a mirror glass,[5] or a pair of identical commodes would flank the chimneypiece or occupy the center of each end wall.

Bombé commodes, with surfaces shaped in three dimensions, were a feature of the rococo style called "Louis Quinze". Rectilinear neoclassical, or "Louis Seize", commodes might have such deep drawers or doors that the feet were en toupie—in the tapering turned shape of a child's spinning top. Both rococo and neoclassical commodes might have cabinets flanking the main section, in which case such a piece was a commode à encoignures;[6] pairs of encoignures or corner-cabinets might also be designed to complement a commode and stand in the flanking corners of a room. If a commode had open shelves flanking the main section it was a commode à l'anglaise.

Before the mid-eighteenth century the commode had become such a necessary article of furniture that it might be made in menuiserie (carpentry), of solid painted oak, walnut or fruitwoods, with carved decoration, typical of French provincial furniture.

England[edit]

A washstand with pitcher (jug) and towel rack, sometimes known as a commode.

In the English-speaking world, commode passed into cabinet-makers' parlance in London by the mid-eighteenth century, to describe chests of drawers with gracefully curved fronts, and sometimes with shaped sides as well, perceived as being in the "French" taste. Thomas Chippendale employed the term "French Commode Tables" to describe designs in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Director (1753), and Ince and Mayhew illustrated a "Commode Chest of drawers", plate xliii, in their Universal System of Household Furniture, 1759–62. John Gloag notes[7] that Commode expanded to describe any piece of furniture with a serpentine front, such as a dressing table, or even a chair seat.[8] Gloag points out that Thomas Shearer's designs for two "commode dressing chests" illustrated in The Cabinet-Makers' London Book of Prices, 1788, plate 17, are repeated, but as "serpentine dressing chests", in The Prices of Cabinet Work, 1797 edition.

The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple meanings of "commode". The first relevant definition reads: "A piece of furniture with drawers and shelves; in the bedroom, a sort of elaborate chest of drawers (so in French); in the drawingroom, a large (and gen.[erally] old-fashioned) kind of chiffonier." The drawing room is itself an old-fashioned term for a formal reception room, and a chiffonier is, in this sense, a small sideboard dating from the early 19th century.

Another meaning attested is a washstand, a piece of furniture equipped with basin, jug, and towel rail, and often with space to store the chamber pot behind closed doors. A washstand in the bedroom pre-dates indoor bathrooms and running water.

Toilet[edit]

Museum collection of toilets, bed pans, hip baths, etc. The modern toilet commode is on the right
19th century heavy wooden toilet commode

In British English, "commode" is the standard term for a chair, often on wheels, enclosing a chamber pot—as used in hospitals and the homes of invalids.[9] (The historic equivalent is the close stool, hence the coveted and prestigious position Groom of the Stool for a courtier close to the monarch.) This piece of furniture is termed in French a chaise percée ("pierced chair"); similar items were made specifically as moveable bidets for washing.

In some parts of the United States, a "commode" is a colloquial synonym for a flush toilet.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ V&A Museum no. 1094-1882
  2. ^ A commode with a divided drawer above two deep ones was a commode en tombeau— a "monumental commode"— or, in retrospect, a commode à la Régence.
  3. ^ The slab might be veneered with a fine or rare marble, such as a breccia; its edges might be moulded.
  4. ^ Such a piece, when made particularly shallow, not to impede passage along the enfilade that connected rooms might be called a demi-commode (Francis J. B. Watson, Louis XVI Furniture 1973, fig.fig. 27).
  5. ^ "In a room with three windows, for instance, one could place between them a commode with drawers and one with drawers, while still preserving an essential symmetry." (Pierre Verlet, French Furniture and Interior Decoration of the 18th Century, 1967) p. 154)
  6. ^ Francis J. B. Watson, Louis XVI Furniture 1973, illustrates as commodes à encoignures the commode by Gilles Joubert and Roger Vandercruse La Croix, 1769 for Mme Victoire at Compiègne (fig. 23 (Frick Collection, New York); the commode by Joubert for Mme Adelaide at Versailles, 1769 (fig. 24, Getty Museum, Los Angeles); the unusually rich and monumental commode by Jean-Henri Riesener for the king's bedroom at Versailles, 1775 (fig. 32, Musée Condé, Chantilly).
  7. ^ Gloag, A Short Dictionary of Furniture , rev. ed. 1969, s.v. "Commode, "Commode Front".
  8. ^ Richard Magrath, a cabinet-maker and upholsterer in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised for sale in 1771 ""Half a Dozen Caned Chairs, a Couch to match them, with commode fronts, and Pincushion seats." (Noted in Gloag, op. cit, s.v. "Commode Front").
  9. ^ "Cambridge Dictionaries online, entry for Commode". Retrieved 20 January 2013. 

External links[edit]