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You could say that designers are on the campaign trail lately. No, they’re not tossing their hats into the political ring (though could you imagine the makeover of the Oval Office?), but they are hot on the trail of campaign furniture, the mobile, military camp furniture designed to endow one-time soldiers with the far-away luxuries of home. Today, these tent-side treasures have officially decamped from the frontlines to take up residence in well-to-do interiors with a hint of the irreverent. Ask most any designer and they’ll say campaign furniture wins big points for being a bipartisan powerhouse, deftly treading the space between modern and traditional like a champ. If you’re feeling swayed by the adventurous aura of campaign furniture, but still on the fence about its design credentials, we’re bringing you all the facts. Read on to learn more about campaign furniture’s history, plus discover why designers are electing to use these one-time camp basics virtually everywhere!

campaign chest
Photo courtesy of Zoe Feldman / Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg

What is Campaign Furniture?

Though a far cry from the fold-up camp chairs and portable picnic tables you’ll see littering any common campsite these days, campaign furniture was essentially designed to fulfill the same purpose. As armies migrated across barren battlefields, they needed transportable furniture that could be used to outfit their camps with the pleasures of home.  

In the absence of modern day synthetics like nylon and fiberglass, craftsmen relied on wood. What resulted could maybe best be deemed “haulable heirlooms.” Every bit as oxymoronic as it sounds, campaign furniture could be disassembled for transport, but as a whole, was no less solidly constructed than indoor counterparts.  

Because campaign furniture needed to be carriageable (or in most cases, slung over a mule’s back), crushable cabriole legs and bombe-like curves wouldn’t fly. Campaign furniture needed to be the equivalent of luggage, possessing a traveling-circus-like ability to be popped up and broken down in a moment’s notice. What resulted were case pieces that mimicked boxes, chairs that could be folded up into a silhouette no larger than a rifle, and tables that were cunningly hinged to fold down into a box the size of a briefcase.

Campaign furniture design varies, but generally, case pieces such as trunks and desks will feature flush fronts finished with recessed brass drawer pulls and brass picture frame corners to prevent dents and dings. Some also included straps and pulls, similar to those seen dressing steamer trunks, to aid in the lugging and pitching over the aforementioned mules’ backs. While many reproductions forgo feet altogether, favoring a sleek box-like structure, traditional campaign chests were buoyed up on lathe-turned feet to offer insurance against flooding and other camp-related calamities. 

Coverage against other natural occurrences—namely, bugs—dictated other hallmark campaign features, including their all-wood construction. Basic physics would seemingly necessitate that a lighter, secondary wood be used in their construction; however, shockingly enough, most antique campaign chests are impenetrable fortresses of solid teak or mahogany. The reason for the splurge? Softer woods would have invited critters aplenty, from carpenter ants to termites. As it was, many soldiers were still required to hold vigil against bugs by placing the feet of their chests and tables in ceramic bowls filled with water or oil from time to time. The tradeoff, of course, was rot, which led to the amputation of the feet on many campaign pieces long before the footless look was in vogue. 

Design by MA Allen / Photo by Stacey Van Berkel

The History of Campaign

Though campaign furniture dates back as far as the Roman Empire, it was 18th and 19th century European armies that fervently embraced the concept, including British officers who were stationed in India and Africa. It probably comes as no surprise that Napoleon Bonaparte, who, as renowned for his military adroitness as much as his affinity for grandiose campaigns, ranks among history’s most ardent campaign furniture advocates, as well. While campaign furniture may be inarguably functional, the fact remains that schlepping four-poster beds and washstands to and from the frontlines does require a certain whit of egoism. 

In the 19th century, elite officers in the British Empire took to commissioning their own campaign furniture and a battle of dernier cri soon followed. Manufacturers began mushrooming to meet the demand—so much so that at one point London boasted more than 85 campaign manufacturers alone. Immigration to the U.S. colonies was yet another boon driving the popularity of campaign furniture in the 19th century. Sleek campaign chests weathered the journey better than the Georgian and Victorian styles of the day, and perhaps most importantly, doubled as steamer trunks which made them attractive purchases even at the outset of a journey.

Photo by Fran Parente / OTTO

How to Decorate with Campaign Furniture 

If you’d like to abstain from decorating with traditional, run-of-the-mill campaign, there are no shortage of ways to mix things up. Here, discover three off-the-beaten pathways to experiment with these Napoleonic-era novelties.

Sit on the Wild Side

Campaign isn’t all stackable, packable chests to très cool tripod stools, chairs were part of the equation, too. Though lesser-known, campaign chairs have earned popularity in their own right, only under a different pseudonym: safari chairs. When Danish modernist Kaare Klint introduced his inaugural safari chair in 1933, he was actually riffing off the Roorkhee chair, a campaign chair first constructed in the village of Roorkee, a north India stop-over nestled just below the Himalayas. The original Roorkhee featured a collapsible frame slung with a canvas seat. Campaign chairs, like directors chairs, feature squared-off frames. The abundance of 90-degree angles makes them a befitting counterpart for equally boxy furniture pieces, be they track-arm sofas, cube-like coffee tables, or, well, campaign chests. 

Embrace Anti-Plain Campaign

British officers stationed in India in the 19th century led to an offshoot of campaign furniture known as Anglo-Indian Campaign. The style fuses campaign’s linearity with Anglo-Indian style’s skillful, lace-like carvings and intricate inlays. The resulting pieces endear those who appreciate campaign furniture’s compact sensibilities but desire just a touch more of the hedonistic when it comes to style. Whereas a basic campaign chest or table can sometimes look a bit stylistically safe, Anglo-Indian campaign pieces can imbue a space with a maximalist mood. Yet their simple silhouettes don’t incur any of the style risk usually associated with less linear pieces. Those aiming for eclectic style will find that Anglo-Indian campaign pieces pair equally well with both modern and old-world interiors. 

Reset in a Rainbow Hue

Campaign case pieces’ planar surfaces make them prime vehicles for color. And unlike, say, bamboo Chippendale pieces, (also popular candidates for colorful second lives), those smooth sides make campaign pieces easy for even DIY-ers to tackle. Use a painted campaign chest in any refined space where you’re craving a bit of convivial color. In a bedroom, a painted campaign chest can be an easy way to break up a traditional brown bedroom set. Campaign furnitures’ basic box shapes will play well with virtually any style, from Chippendale to Mission style. Lacquered finishes also look especially lust-worthy on campaign furniture and work particularly well in kids’ rooms.

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Lead design by Barrie Benson / Photo by Brie Williams

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April 3, 2021

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