Of all the elements in today's American homes, closets just might be considered the second-most essential, right behind the bathroom. How could we possibly live without closets? But if you'll look at plans of the greatest American homes ever built, you'll notice that most of the ones built before the 1920s had very few if any closets for clothes. How was that possible? Didn't they have more than a single change of clothes?
Yes, they did, and it was actually quite easy. Rather than having fixed closets, they had a number of different pieces of furniture such as armoires, bureaus, chests-of-drawers, etc., for storing hanging clothing, folded clothing, etc. And when you look at those plans, you'll notice that the fact that they're not "gunked up" with closets all over the place allows the plans to be much cleaner, with better-proportioned rooms, doors, and windows.
Clean plans, however, are just the beginning. Storing clothes in furniture rather than closets allows much more flexibility because it allows rooms to do the unthinkable: change from a bedroom to an office, dining room, den, study, library, and back again, just by moving furniture around.
It also saves a lot of space. A stud wall with 5/8" sheetrock on either side is nearly 5" thick by the time you get it mudded and painted or finished with wallcovering. An armoire wall thickness is likely closer to 3/4". Reduce every closet wall by over 4" and you pick up some really usable space in a plan.
You may also save money. We don't often consider the real cost of closets. By the time you frame the walls, sheetrock them, install the door frames, the doors, the hinges, the latches, the baseboard and possibly the crown mold on the outside of the closet, you've easily spent more than enough money to build a really nice armoire that can store just as much clothing as the closet. And if you've designed it well, the armoire is far more attractive than the closet.
There's another benefit as well: Closet walls built to the ceiling make the bedroom smaller. But when you use armoires instead, they don't go all the way to the ceiling and as a result, the room looks bigger.
With all these benefits, why would you not want to store your clothes this way? Like drywall-free walls, replacing closets with armoires is scary to most designers and builders because it isn't their normal way of doing things. Wanda and I designed Coastal Living's 2011 Idea House, and we designed all of the clothing storage in furniture pieces instead of closets. Just like the walls I blogged about earlier, the developer cautiously went along with the idea… until the drawings were done and the interior decorator got involved. Her influence was just enough to push the house back into using closets again. So remember that with any revolutionary idea, all of the experts (architects, designers, decorators, builders, developers, and real estate agents) will likely recommend against it because it's not what they're accustomed to. They're accustomed to doing ordinary things. But if you want an extraordinary home, make that very clear to them… if you prevail, they'll likely thank you for it once it's built.