Spring heralds the launch of new designs at Soane Britain and we are excited to have The Bookcase Étagère already on display in our London showroom. Our sizeable art and design books have a comfortable new home on its sturdy shelves, along with antique silver bowls and our Amber Lights. The gilded brass bookcase reflects light beautifully, bringing warmth and life into our darkest room, known by the Soane team as ‘the pink room.’
The étagère was a popular item of furniture in late eighteenth century France, its lightweight ‘stages’ or shelves being suited to the aristocratic fashion for displaying ornaments and objects. Made in a variety of exotic woods, they were decorative pieces in themselves. The Victorians, with their fondness for collecting (see our previous post, ‘Extraordinary Collections’), revived the étagère, further adorning it with gilding, marble and mirrors so that it became considerably heavier in appearance.
A further revival was seen in the 1950s, when American decorator Billy Baldwin collaborated with established furniture studio Frederick P. Victoria & Sons to make étagères for Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers apartment. Preferring not to have built in bookcases in the library, Baldwin designed freestanding shelving that Porter could move to future homes. His pared back étagère design made in tubular brass, had a physical and visual lightness that was both practical and incredibly elegant. Baldwin’s brass ‘Porter Étagère’ became a signature design.
Baldwin’s belief that ‘what is practical is beautiful’ is particularly relevant to his Porter Étagères. Certainly our excitement about The Bookcase Étagère, is its great practicality. The Soane Britain design falls somewhere between bookcase and étagère, being semi-open with brass panels to the back and sides of each shelf. Structurally this strengthens the shelving and has the benefit of containing books neatly, yet the use of sheet brass with curved cut-aways maintains the lighter look of an étagère.
The real joy for Lulu has been in developing an earlier Soane design (which was based on a nineteenth century French model), to make the new Bookcase Étagère modular. Lulu collaborated with the brilliant antique dealer and decorator Peter Twining to design interchangeable single and double feet that allow units to be neatly combined and to work in corner situations. This offers flexibility when planning runs of shelving and also for our ever-changing lives. Lulu says ‘I love that the Bookcase Étagères can be adapted as you move from house to house – they will last a lifetime.’
Lulu chose to complete the Bookcase Étagère with decorative finials in the spirit of the original French model and in this respect Soane Britain follows the great master Baldwin. Victoria & Sons recently told of rediscovering the models for the dragooned finials used on the original Porter Étagères. They had been packed away and forgotten about until 2009 when the organisers of a Baldwin exhibition asked the manufacturers for any material they could borrow. We loved hearing how now – over half a century later – the finials have been put back into production for a client’s étagère commission.
Victoria & Sons played a significant role in the creation of Baldwin’s classic mid-century design and we too must acknowledge the skilled British makers of our Bookcase Étagères, especially for their beautiful finishes. The brass Bookcase Étagère can be made in any of Soane Britain’s standard metal finishes, butTopkapi Gilt is a speciality of this one workshop. The finish was originally created for our Topkapi Lantern and Topkapi Wall Light whose designs were inspired by the tombak (gilded copper) collections at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The wonderfully mottled, deep golden finish (the technique for which is a closely guarded trade secret!) has since been applied to other Soane lights, for example in The Chinnerycollection, but we feel that Topkapi Gilt was the perfect choice for our showroom Bookcase Étagère. It brings a wonderfully warm glow to our pink room and gives a distinctive Soane look to the brass étagère.
Top image gallery: Image of The Bookcase Étagère with Amber Light, Crillon Chair and Weymouth Floor Light, all by Soane Britain; The Bookcase Étagère by Soane Britain; Photograph of Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers library; Detail of a watercolour by the late Mark Hampton depicting Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers library