Buffets and Such

By Paula Kirwan


When I was growing up, we had what we called a “credenza” in our dining room. When I began furnishing my first home some years later, I went shopping for a vintage credenza of my own, but since I couldn’t find one, I ended up choosing between two pieces I really liked - a “sideboard” and a “buffet.” 


After purchasing the sideboard, I was still confused about what those two pieces of furniture were called and I noted how similar they looked to the credenza that was in my childhood home. To this day, I’ve wondered why there is a difference in the names, so I’ve done some snooping and found these interesting tidbits of information. (Photo, right: antique carved walnut 1920s sideboard)


Sideboards originated in medieval times as narrow tables or shelves that were used for food preparation and a place to put food while serving.  By the 18th century, they evolved into fashionable pieces of furniture as homes started featuring one room that was used solely for the purpose of dining.  Not only did style become important, but function as well as drawers and specific areas for storing dishes and utensils were incorporated into the design. (Photo left: French sideboard with inlaid wood panels at GasLamp Booth B-305, $450.)


“Buffet” is the French word for sideboard.  When the Swedish custom of serving big spreads of food and drink known as smorgasbords became popular in France and the rest of Europe, and then eventually into America, the name buffet was used for both a method of serving food and the name of the piece of furniture on which the food was placed.


The word “credenza” comes from the English word “credence” and the Italian word for “belief” or “confidence.”  These pieces were aptly named, considering they were first used in the Middle Ages in noble or royal households as a place to put food that needed to be tasted by servants to insure it was safe for the dignitaries to eat, since being poisoned by one’s enemies was an ever-present danger during those times.  (Photo, above right: mahogany Art Nouveau sideboard at Booth T-381; $950)


The origins of these three names are interesting, but functionally, it really doesn’t matter what this type of furniture is called, because they were all basically created for the same purpose – to be used in a dining room, where they have remained popular for centuries.


For example, this Aesthetic Movement boulle credenza, at left, was created around 1875, during the height of the Victorian Era. It is ebonized and features bands of satinwood inlay and gilt inlay, along with brass trim throughout. Its gilt neoclassical columns are flanked by two curved glass door curios.


This beautiful piece includes a Wedgwood blue jasper medallion plaque on the central door; it depicts a Grecian woman playing a tambourine. This slightly convex plaque belongs to a group of such plaques created as furniture cartouche decorations. (Photo, above left: Victorian boulle credenza at GasLamp Booth T-T360; $2900.)


Today credenzas are often repurposed outside of the dining room, perhaps for a TV stand in the family room, a decorator piece for the foyer or living room, or even reconfigured for a sink in the bathroom.  There are lots of possibilities, so the most important decisions for selecting a sideboard/ buffet/credenza are choosing something you like, finding a piece that complements the decor in your home, and having the place and space to use it.  (Tiered French credenza; $2,850 at Booth T-707.)




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