The luxury steamer trunk has long been a nostalgic symbol of a bygone era. They conjure images of fashionably attired travelers with sweeping bustled dresses and stylish jaunty hats, boarding great steamships destined for faraway ports. Or perhaps elegant transcontinental trains, disgorging plumes of smoke as they rush toward a foreign city, unveiling spectacular vistas around each new bend in the track. Such is the emotional impact these magnificent trunks can have on us. Covered in embossed canvas or leather, festooned with glinting hardware that appears to serve no discernible purpose other than to draw the eye, these unwieldy pieces of luggage may have fallen from favor and become casualties of modern travel, however, they somehow still manage to capture our imagination and remind us of a life well-lived.
It is no surprise then that these over-sized suitcases have experienced a resurgence in recent years. We find them in antique and vintage shops around the globe in ever increasing number, where collectors are willing to put down hefty sums for a chance to own one. Yet, curiously, their use no longer seems to involve travel. They have instead found a new purpose, a second chance, if you will; though one that is still closely linked to their glamorous past.
Nowadays, we more commonly find them serving as decorative items in the home – a burgeoning trend in interior design. And by cleverly inserting them into a design, the designer can evoke a timeless sense of nostalgia within the space they create.
The history of the steamer trunk stretches back to the mid-18th Century. They were created for the purpose of transporting mail and were commonly seen strapped to the back of postal carriages. The first designs had a sloped, camelback lid that would allow rainwater to easily run off, keeping them dry and their contents protected. In the 19th Century, as recreational travel became more common among the upper-middle class, these trunks were adapted for personal use, transporting clothing, toiletries, and even books. As a result, their design underwent several distinctive changes – most notably, the flat lid. Since trunks were now being stored in luggage compartments aboard trains and steamships, rather than the back carriages, which is how they earned their present name, a flat lid made more practical sense as it allowed them to be stacked. When you consider the average family of four would typically travel with no fewer that twelve trunks at a time, this was far more efficient use of limited space.
The luxury steamer trunk also adopted more decorative elements that quickly became indicators of a traveler’s wealth and status. Embossed logos identifying pricier brands (such as the familiar LV pattern of Luis Vuitton) were applied to the canvas exterior that replaced the former metal and leather frames as they were lighter, dried quickly, and were easy to clean.
Additional steps were taken to enhance a trunk’s attractiveness and make them more status-worthy – something that would never have been considered a century earlier. The trunks were embellished with brass hardware, which was buffed and polished until it shone like gold. For obvious marketing reasons, these adornments became known as “the jewelry.” Some familiar examples of this hardware are ornate locks, clasps, brackets, rivets, nails, and rounded corner pieces, which served to protect the barrel from violent jolting during long sea voyages.
At this time there were numerous luxury steamer trunk manufacturers, both here in the States and across Europe. Of these, however, the French manufactures were the most wildly coveted, and remain so today. The three most prominent among these were Goyard, Moynat Paris and, of course, the incomparable Louis Vuitton. Nevertheless, several of our domestic brands, such as Lavolaille, Hartmann, and Oshkosh, were equally popular, especially with the American tourists.
The luxury steamer trunk soon adopted more decorative elements that became indicators of a traveler’s wealth and status.
Refurbishing these vintage trunks has become something of a cottage industry. One noteworthy company that specializes in their restoration is Rêve de Bagages, located in Haguenau, France. We recommend checking out their website, La malle en coin. They maintain an impressive inventory of vintage trunks targeted at the discriminating collector. And for those interested, you will find a selection of videos on their site that demonstrate the painstaking process by these magnificent pieces are restored – everything from re-framing the balsam slats, to buffing and replacing the original hardware, to re-lining the interiors with matching silk fabrics – which is clearly a labor of love for these talented craftsmen.
We can attribute the current repurposing of the steamer trunk, in all its myriad functions and forms, in large part to the vision of those interior designers who work them into their design schemes. While these pieces are clearly beautiful in and of themselves, it’s the associations they conjure that add to their allure.
Introducing a trunk in the décor of a room, particularly one with an exotic theme, can touch upon that subliminal yearning for adventure and travel, and add a whimsical element to an otherwise prosaic space.
The challenge, of course, is to incorporate the pieces in ways that are unexpected, while still making practical sense. We often find them functioning as a coffee or side table – a very effective and visually impactful use in a living room. Some designers will take this one step further and mount a trunk on a custom stand made of wood or iron. This can provide more support as well as close the seeming gap between furniture and luggage. Verve Design took this same approach on a unique project, where a narrower cabin trunk was neatly tucked beneath a display table to suggest a small bench (see adjacent photo). This adaptation could further be enhanced with the addition of a custom-made cushion covered in a vibrant accent fabric.
A common spot for a steamer trunk is at the foot of a bed. When placed here, it not only serves as a convenient bench, but does double-duty by providing a place to store extra blankets and bedding. Once again, style and form can work together in the application of these versatile pieces.
If there is one trunk design that stand out among the lot, it is likely the library trunk. These beautiful pieces were exceedingly popular from the latter half of the 19th Century to the beginning of the 20th. They not only provided travelers with a ready means to transport their books, they also doubled as makeshift desks, built with a drop-down panel for writing and a number of small compartments where ink, pens, stamps, and stationery could be stored – similar to what you find in a secretary desk. In a time before televisions or electronic devices made entertaining oneself a relatively easy feat, a trunk like this was a luxury, if not a necessity, on those lengthy journey transatlantic journeys.
Despite their early popularity at the time, finding one today can be a challenging task. If you are indeed fortunate enough to track one done, a trunk like this, propped up and opened in an empty corner of a room, can be a fantastic way to create an intimate writing nook and add a novel element to an otherwise unused space.
A similar effect may be achieved with yet another popular trunk style. The wardrobe trunk was the largest and, perhaps, most popular of commercially manufactured trunks. It typically has a full row of drawers on one side that intended for folded clothing, and a hollow compartment on the opposing that is fitted with a rod for hanging dresses and shirts. This can offer a creative alternative to that large and bulky wardrobe that too often upsets the balance of a room.
Another innovative way to work trunks into a room’s design is to stack a few hat trunks (the smallest of the trunk varieties) to be used as a makeshift stand for a vase, plant, or piece of sculpture.
Clearly, there are endless ways that these beautiful pieces can be worked into the design of a room. Their creative use is only bound by the limits of one’s imagination. In the end, though, what seems to appeal most about them, apart from any nostalgic notions they may inspire, is the idea that something old can suddenly be made new again. And not in any way its creator originally intended. While these trunks continue to possess the same elegance, the same artistry that any exceptional pierce of craftsmanship does, they now answer a different call – one that continues to inspire and delight. They have evolved, as all things must. And in a world where the obsolete is too often discarded for what is new and more relevant, it’s refreshing to find that something from the past, made with such care and refinement, can adopt new meaning in the beauty of our homes.