Home décor is a lot like fashion in that certain styles are classic and timeless, and others come and go as fads. The display cabinet is one type of furnishing whose place in today’s home décor is a matter of hot debate. In the eyes of many, display cabinets are archaic, outdated, and too old-fashioned for today’s homes. But are they?
They have been a common sight in grandparents’ dining rooms through the years, but display cabinets are not just for showcasing fine china, which is still popular today. This is largely thanks to their functionality and the storytelling platform they provide to items of sentiment and curiosity.
Display cabinets come in many shapes and sizes, and as many people have discovered, even antique cabinets, hand-me-downs, and pieces that are way past their prime can be valuable additions to any living space. Regarding whether display cabinets are old-fashioned, the answer lies in what can be done with these home furnishing pieces, and as it turns out, there is a lot. Here’s how.
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Are Display Cabinets Old Fashioned?
Taken at face value, display cabinets are not categorically old-fashioned. After all, they are standalone home furnishings designed to store and display items, although not necessarily in that order. Their signature attribute is a see-through front, typically in the form of glass doors, that enables the contents of the display cabinet to be seen and appreciated.
It is in the context of usage that display cabinets may be considered by some to be archaic home furnishing, specifically about how they were used by older generations.
For decades, china cabinets were synonymous with formal dining rooms, and they were often crammed with fine china and other delicate dinnerware that might have been used once a year (if even that).
Nowadays, most people take a more casual approach to dining and entertaining, and many modern homes do not even have a formal dining room. And while china cabinets may never reclaim the lofty status they once held, display cabinets remain a popular piece of home furnishing, albeit with a more modern spin on how they are used and, just as importantly, by whom.
Here is the lowdown:
- A recent phenomenon in the socio-cultural sphere is the emergence of what is known as the grand millennial style, which is the embracing by millennials of nostalgic designs favored by their grandparents’ generation
- Accordingly, display cabinets are very popular home furnishing pieces with the younger set who view them as highly functional for storing, organizing, and, yes, even displaying many sorts of items
- Of particular value to modern proponents of display cabinets is their vertical dimension, which in many of today’s smaller homes and living spaces, is an effective way to maximize usable storage space
- For homes with limited closet space, display cabinets are ideal storage vehicles because, relative to their compact footprint, they have high holding capacity (and they can be moved to areas of need)
- So popular is the concept of restoring vintage display cabinets (particularly china cabinets) and repurposing them that the hashtag #chinacabinet has over a quarter-million views on the uber-popular social media platform TikTok
Display cabinets have earned a new lease on life with their newfound functionality among millennials, zoomers, and other generations.
The Display Cabinet’s Newfound Functionality
Instead of housing and displaying bone china dinnerware or family heirlooms that are much too fragile even to be handled, display cabinets today are being used to store and organize items that would have gone against popular convention not long ago, perhaps even been considered outrageous.
Notable examples include:
- With their vertical stature, tall display cabinets make for unconventional wardrobes and standalone auxiliary spaces for closet-challenged homes
- For certain types of house plants, display cabinets make good indoor greenhouses, adding warmth and greenery to living spaces
- Another unconventional use for display cabinets these days is as display cabinets – but instead of items like china and heirlooms, DIY pieces like sculptures and homemade pottery are on display
If there is one interior design lesson to be learned from the resurgence in popularity of display cabinets, it is that functionality and storage space never goes out of style.
What Do You Call a Display Cabinet?
The term display cabinet more accurately refers to a category of indoor cabinetry than a specific type of home furnishing. There are a handful of display cabinet types, and they go by different names, but their basic attributes are the same:
- A glass front, most commonly in the form of glass doors, allows contents to be seen
- A tall stature (they are typically taller than they are wide)
- Interior shelving for holding, organizing, and displaying items
- Many units also feature drawers (typically occupying the lower half of the unit) for additional storage and organization of items
The differences between the different types of display cabinets are mostly subtle, to the point that their names are often used interchangeably.
But we will discuss the most common types for those who want to get their display cabinet facts straight.
For generations, china cabinets have been common fixtures in dining rooms, with glass doors standing guard over porcelain dinnerware and other valuable items, real or perceived. They have served as status symbols and, in the eyes of many, represent ostentatious (and perhaps outdated) displays of wealth and family tradition.
Perceptions aside, china cabinets also have undeniably functional characteristics, making them essential home furnishing pieces for people looking to organize collections of items or whose homes lack sufficient built-in cabinetry. Even for those who do not own a single piece of porcelain china or expensive silverware, a china cabinet is a valuable resource for storing and organizing everyday items like:
- Everyday items like dishes, glassware, and silverware (especially if the china cabinet is near the family dining table)
- Place setting accessories like placemats, napkins, napkin rings, and the like
- Special occasion items like candles, cake cutters, tablecloths, and serving implements
One way to look at china cabinets today is to focus on their functional value. By peeling away any negative perceptions, such as their ostentatiousness, china cabinets can be seen for what they truly are: valuable cabinetry that may happen to look good too.
What differentiates Vitrines from other display cabinets is their prominent use of glass inside and out. Because of this characteristic, vitrines are commonly used in commercial and public settings where all the focus is drawn to the items on display, usually comprising high-value wares.
Structurally speaking, vitrines feature glass on all visible sides (meaning, at minimum, the front and the sides) and glass shelving. While vitrines typically feature a frame or skeleton made of wood or metal to support the glass panes, there are also frameless vitrines that have the appearance of a single, seamless piece of glass molded into a stunning showcase.
For these reasons, vitrines are often seen in places like:
- Jewelry stores
- High-end retail outlets
But vitrines used as display cabinets are also found in homes, and on top of providing elegant settings for showcasing items of high monetary or sentimental value, these unique cabinetry pieces are visually stunning objects in and of themselves.
Before museums came, some curiosities cabinets were meticulously assembled and filled with antiquities, rare valuables, and other items of “curiosity.” More often than not, these depositories were curated by the rich and powerful aristocrats and members of royalty whose opulent lifestyles and frequent travels allowed them to amass these personal collections.
Over time, objects of curiosity came to be housed and displayed in cabinets instead of rooms, and the term curio cabinet was coined to describe a predominantly glass cabinet specifically designed to display objects deemed interesting and valuable by their owner. In many instances, items showcased in a curio cabinet are intended only to be viewed and not directly handled.
Today, curio cabinets are perhaps the most common type of display cabinet, popular with artists, hobbyists, and collectors. Although the contents of a curio cabinet are ultimately placed at the sole discretion of the cabinet’s owner, there are commonly used guidelines for gathering items for display, including:
- Many curio cabinets are stocked with items that adhere to a certain theme, be it a sentimental one (e.g., a bucket-list trip) or a nostalgic one (e.g., childhood mementos)
- Grouping similar objects is a popular method of stocking a curio cabinet
- Sorting items by color, size, or even place of origin is another popular way of organizing the contents of a curio cabinet
Sometimes the only thing in common shared by displayed items is that they are strange and bizarre, and of no surprise when it comes to curio cabinets, this is perfectly okay.
Related Article: China Cabinet Vs. Curio Cabinets
Modern Takes on Display Cabinets
With the right approach and a willingness to think outside the box, a display cabinet can make a stylish addition to any home, regardless of the décor. This is particularly true for spaces with traditional themes, but even for interiors with a more modern flair, a display cabinet can be a profoundly becoming piece for displaying collectibles and items best characterized as curiosities.
As accomplished interior designers are recognizing, display cabinets are more than just a means of organizing and showcasing certain possessions:
- They are the perfect vehicle for storytelling, with their contents serving as a diverse cast of characters
- Display cabinets can evoke a wealth of memories and the sharing of sentimental tales
- They can even inspire the exchange of ideas and spark a multitude of conversations
- Given the dynamic effect that a display cabinet can have on its surroundings, it can be placed in virtually any room in a home
The possibilities are limitless regarding the types of items that can be placed in a display cabinet. Collectibles are commonly displayed as highly sentimental (not necessarily monetary) items.
Here are a few notable suggestions:
- Mementos and keepsakes from travels
- Antiques and collectibles
- Sculptures, figurines, and other small artistic pieces
- Rare and vintage books
- Family heirlooms
- Rare stones and mineral collections
- Fossils and other natural rarities
Display cabinets inherently convey a sense of order by presenting an enclosed space for housing and showcasing items, and organizing collections with a sense of purpose can elevate this home furnishing to a museum-piece level. Simple strategies can transform an assortment of items into an eye-catching collection with a strong visual appeal.
- Collections of items can be grouped or staged according to a shared attribute, such as by year, style, type, or theme
- Create visual cues and appealing sightlines by arranging items according to physical characteristics, such as stacking smaller books on top of larger ones or grouping similarly sized objects together
- Emphasize the variety or eclectic nature of a collection by positioning disparate objects next to each other
Another option (and decidedly pro-designer move) would be to use lighting within the cabinet to add a dynamic visual effect to the display and enhance the overall look of the entire piece.
Related Article: How To Display Items in Your Curio Cabinet
Repurposing a Display (China) Cabinet
Perhaps no specific type of display cabinet is more polarizing than the china cabinet, and this may be large because, unlike past generations, many people today do not own fine dinnerware, nor are they inclined to put them on display. But that sentiment does not change the fact that a china cabinet does not have to be (nor should it be) defined or judged by its contents.
There are plenty of inspired ideas for repurposing a china cabinet to suit contemporary décor, including these gems:
- A repurposed china cabinet can be transformed into a next-level bookcase that is perfectly suitable for housing hardbound books and prized literary pieces, and best of all, this would be an ideal way to avoid having to dust them
- Thanks to the plethora of online resources for home cooks to learn the intricacies of cooking delicious meals at home, kitchens are overflowing with cookware and culinary gadgetry, and using the spacious confines of a china cabinet is a great way to organize and store them
- For families with overachievers among their ranks, a repurposed china cabinet is a great way to display (and show off) trophies, medals, and awards, be they in recognition of athletic, artistic, or scholastic achievements
- Hobbyists would be keen on having a space of their own to showcase the tools and finished products of their craft, and a repurposed china cabinet is the perfect setup
Of course, there is no more appropriate stage than a china cabinet for those with a collection of fine china or heirlooms worthy of display in a museum piece setting.
Refinishing a Display Cabinet
Some may consider a display cabinet old-fashioned simply because of its tired, worn appearance. Old stain or faded paint can signal that an old cabinet (or any piece of furniture, for that matter) is ready to get dropped off at the local thrift shop or destined for the scrap heap.
But sometimes, a simple facelift is all it takes to completely revitalize an old or used display cabinet and transform it from an eyesore to the centerpiece of a room. One does not need to be an experienced carpenter or even handy with tools to refinish a display cabinet.
Here are a few simple steps that demonstrate just how straightforward this process is:
- The first step is to remove all the doors, including the hinges, all drawers, and the shelving (it may be necessary to remove the back of the cabinet if the shelves cannot be removed through the front, even with the doors off)
- The next step is to remove the old stain or paint by sanding the entire cabinet, including the backboard (this is the inside back surface that can be seen through the doors)
- Any undesired molding or decorative features should be removed during the sanding stage so that these areas can be refinished with fresh stain or paint
- Apply stain, primer, and paint as needed to the exterior and interior surfaces of the cabinet as well as the shelves (unless they are glass), drawers, and doors to achieve the desired new look
- One out-of-the-box idea for completely refreshing an old display cabinet is to cover the cabinet backing with wallpaper to create a bold, unique look
- Once everything is completely dry, re-attach the hinges and re-install the shelves, drawers, and doors (and the cabinet backing if it was removed at the beginning)
Additional touches that enhance the new look of a refinished display cabinet are new door handles and drawer knobs. A DIY approach to refinishing an old display cabinet can give a tired piece of furniture a new lease on life while elevating any interior space.
Long considered a fixture in formal dining rooms, the display cabinet, as it was traditionally used by past generations, has fallen out of favor with many people. But while they may no longer showcase fine china or family heirlooms, display cabinets are just as functional as ever, and for those with limited storage space in their homes, they are essential home furnishings.
This shows that display cabinets may very well be old-fashioned, but that does not mean they are out of style.