Old Spanish furniture has three outstanding qualities—-dignified, concentrated interest (ornate or simple) and useful.
When a piece of furniture is beautiful in it’s own right – whether it’s simple or ornate in design – it will hold it’s own in any room.
It appears to be harmonious against either a severely austere or a richly elaborate setting.
It is only when placed in a weak, namby-pamby environment that is neither austere nor consistently opulent that old Spanish furniture looks out of keeping.
And, in such cases, it is the background that suffers by comparison.
Traditions and Character of Old Spanish Furniture
Spanish wall furniture in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the pieces of most usual occurrence were chests of several sorts, vargueiio (vargueno) cabinets, cabinets and small wall tables that may not inappropriately be called consoles, long wall tables, cupboards and bedsteads.
When we examine the several articles of old Spanish wall furniture alongside of the corresponding contemporary articles made in Italy or in France, we cannot help being struck by the fact that the vargueiio cabinet is the most distinctively Spanish piece which the artisans of the period produced and that the mastery of manual skill and decorative facility therein exemplified epitomizes the highest achievements of Hispanic cabinet-making craft. The origin of the vargueiio cabinet antedates the 16th Century, and it is one of the oldest articles of Spanish furniture.
Vargueiio – Vargueno Cabinets
Thanks to the habit of the Spanish people to sit on the floor, the vargueiio cabinet was for a long time the only important piece of Spanish wall furniture.
It rested upon a stand of which the earliest form seems to have been a table with trestle legs and wrought iron braces. Stands of carved walnut, were especially made to hold the vargueiio, or else the support was supplied by a cupboard base, containing drawers and doors.
In structure the vargueno was a rectangular box with one side hinged at the bottom so as to let down, thus forming a falling front. Sliding supports were provided on the stand which, when pulled out, held up the drop front.
Within, the whole side, or rather the whole front, was taken up with rows of small drawers and possibly a door in the center concealing still other small drawers or a pigeonhole for large papers.
Upon comparing the vargueno cabinet both closed and open, it will be seen that the type of decoration inside was totally different from, and usually far richer than, the method of embellishment employed outside.
And this difference was characteristic. While the exterior was generally of plain walnut or chestnut adorned with fretted and gilded wrought iron mounts, underlaid with pieces of red velvet, the interior was oftentimes gorgeous and fairly blazing with gold, color and bone inlay engraved in vermilion or black with arabesque, leaf or flower motifs or, sometimes, with figures of animals or birds.
When the vargueno cabinet was the only important piece of furniture in a Spanish home, it is easy to understand why such efforts were made to produce an effect of unusual enrichment. It is also easy to understand why it is better that it should not be crowded with other pieces nowadays in arranging the furnishing of a room.
Spanish Long Tables
Just as in Italy, long tables,were often used against the wall, where the rich carving of their drawer fronts and under framing materially contributed to the decoration of the room.
Although these long tables, were just as often used as center tables – this didn’t happen with regularity until after the 17th century.
Both Spaniards and Italians seem to have the need of corner furniture, by the use of three cornered tables made to be set in the angle of two walls.
Spanish Cabinets and Cupboards
Cabinets and cupboards showed the widest variation in size and fashion.
One especially interesting type is the low cupboard or hutch with boot feet.
While the design of the feet, the fact that painted decoration is applied upon the walnut ground, and the contour and dimensions are all matters deserving of close attention, the most significant structural feature is the lattice work of the tops of the doors.
This peculiarity shows direct descent from a Moorish prototype, the lattice being a favorite device of the Moorish joiners a tradition learned by the Spanish craftsmen from their Moorish tutors – that the use of lattices and small panels, loosely set, was the only way of combating the shrinking and warping effects of the sun and preventing cracking of the wood.
Tall cabinets, cupboards or presses usually had attention to detail with a wealth of strongly cut detail which is thoroughly characteristic of much of the early Spanish carving.