To which he said "ay-tah-what?"
In modern terminology, an etagere is essentially a shelving unit, open on all sides, with decorative flourishes. Like so:
Out of curiosity, I looked it up in Decorating Defined and discovered that originally, an etagere was specifically: a pyramid of open shelves intended for the display of objects, better known in humbler circumstances, thanks to the Victorian era, as a whatnot.
The venerable Albert Hadley via mfmb.com
Today it is a bit more generalized, but the idea is the same. So when and how does one use such a thing?
Two general rules:
1) You want an etagere where presence is required without bulk
Or when a sculptural quality is called for.
2) Etageres are still really for the display of objects, not books.
While objects make the most of the often elegant materials and more delicate profile of etageres, books can overwhelm them:
Of course, if book storage is what you really need, you can make it work. Just arrange the books in smaller, artful piles, and lay them both horizontally and vertically.
While they certainly work singly, I tend to like etageres in pairs. (Though I have a distinct leaning towards pairs, be they lamps, chairs, or artworks.) The can bring an added dose of balance to any room, and flank a doorway, media center, or, yes, a fireplace.
I'm also a fan of the "mismatched pair," and love Nate Berkus's clever use of an etagere to match the verticality of the artwork in his Chicago living room.
And then of course there is this set of three...
Naturally, I've been rounding up some affordable options. There are truly gorgeous choices out there, and, frankly, I think an etagere should be stately and beautiful. For this project, however, the whole idea is to do something inexpensive, and there are certainly some worth looking at under the $500 mark.