Cabinet of Curiosities
Yesteryear's cabinets of curiosities, also known as wunderkammer, were small collections of extraordinary objects which, like today’s musea, attempted to categorize and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world. My own medicine cabinet is an unintended cabinet of curiosities: a matchbox with my children's milk teeth lives side by side with an elaborate collection of never-used perfume samples, mismatched earrings and a long-expired bottle of Chanel bronzer (because Chanel...).
All kidding aside, cabinets of natural curiosities were the precursors of today’s natural history musea. They first appeared around 1500 in the courts of Italian princes. By the beginning of the next century, they were quite popular and were found throughout Europe. Albertus Seba (1665-1736), a Dutch apothecary, had one of the most extensive collections of natural curiosities in the world. He commissioned artists to draw all his specimens and then had them engraved and published as a set of folios. The book below was created from those folios.
I believe its a very innately human thing to want to collect and categorize personal mementos and artifacts, however invaluable they may seem to anyone else. As a child, I begged my parents fora vintage letterbox – similar to the one on the book cover below - and for years it hung on my bedroom wall filled with a random collection of treasures: rocks and shells, small glass bottles filled with beads, figurines and trinkets... It was a way to define my likes and dislikes, my interests and passions – my very own mini-museum if you wish.
Cabinets of curiosities, past and present, are a recurring theme in decorating and exist in numerous iterations. While such cabinets in the past often contained shells, coral, insects, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, and many other natural curiosities, I strongly feel there are no rules as to the type of collectible or the manner of display.
Butterfly collections - a curiosity cabinet staple, real or fake - have long captured our imagination. Perhaps because of their beautiful colors and intricate patterns, or the grace of their flight, butterflies tend to get a lot more love than other types of insects. It goes without saying that this in no way condones the killing or collecting of endangered species of any kind.
The wunderkammer aesthetic is alive and kicking at De Vera, easily one of my most favorite NYC stores – and not just because of its name. The gallery shows a finely curated selection of Venetian glass, Japanese lacquer, ivory carvings, 18th century religious figures and antique jewelry. Another unique focus is de Vera jewelry, incorporating rare antique elements such as Roman intaglios and Georgian brooches, with precious gemstones including rose-cut diamonds, baroque pearls and Sardinian coral. It's a truly inspiring place, with treasures beautifully displayed in very nook and cranny
A different take is offered by NYC boutique Creel and Gow which carries fascinating and exquisite objects sourced from all around the world by Paris based Jamie Creel and former Sotheby’s expert Christopher Gow, both avid collectors - rare minerals, taxidermy, coral, silver shells, unusual decorative objects and exotic accessories fill this modern cabinet of curiosities.
That just proves the point that collecting specimens and curiosa can have a contemporary, even minimalist vibe – think industrial archivist's cabinets and basic glass bell cloches.
This trend is all about creating beautiful, idiosyncratic still lifes in cabinets, on tables, consoles – or even attached to the wall.
If animalia are not your thing, focus on the beauty of the botanical world.
Really, any collection can be the starting point for a an intriguing display, just make sure there is some sort of common thread, whether it's color, material, shape or theme.
Last but not least, I want to leave you with this image of Hueso, a restaurant in Mexico’s Guadalajara city, that is basically an enormous curiosity cabinet painted entirely white. Created by celebrity chef Alfonso Cadena and designed by his brother Ignacio, the unconventional albeit somewhat chilling interiors of this restaurant are second to none. If bones and skulls are not your bag, replicate this look with a collection of white pottery. Beautiful!