Furniture for the Middle Classes
Tuesday 19 October 2010
Forget Arts and Crafts because the rightful contender to being named forerunner of contemporary furniture is Biedermeier, suggests Andrea Hargreaves
The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 was also the Waterloo of the ornate furniture style that had been synonymous with his empire. Growing urbanisation and industrialisation led to the formation of a new middle class hungry for literature, music, visual arts and design that more suited their lifestyle.
As the mood of the people of Europe changed, so too did their taste in furniture. Ormolu mounts, gilding and the excessive embellishment associated with the Empire slid down the popularity poll to be replaced with an elegant restraint executed in a mix of exotic and native woods used to show off the skills of the cabinetmaker rather than the ebeniste.
Of course, there was no Herr Biedermeier, the term for the style coming about after its apogee in 1848 at the time of European revolutions as the result of satire which led to the furniture being mocked. In fact the name Biedermeier was not coined until 1869 when poems were published relating unflatteringly to a character of that name. Thus the term Biedermeier came to symbolise the middle classes with an inference of boredom, the German word bieder meaning common-or-garden and Meier being a surname as common as Smith.
But Biedermeier furniture is anything but ordinary. It celebrates native timbers and tames the flamboyance of the French Empire to a rich style where shape and finish respect the integrity of the material and where function is at least as important as form.
One of the foremost experts on the movement is Hakan Groth who is a partner in Biedermeier specialists Rupert Cavendish Antiques in London. He says that craftsmen spread ideas that stretched from Vienna to Scandinavia and across to Russia in the early 19th century. Thus there are many regional variations in the furniture.
Hamburg, Copenhagen and Gothenburg, he says, all had close trading links with Britain, so their furniture reflects English Regency whereas in Sweden it is generally known by the name Carl Johan after the monarch of the time.
While in Britain and America Biedermeier furniture has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity since World War II, in continental Europe it has been continuously fashionable and even in the early years of the last century it was influencing the great stylists of the time, including Josef Hoffmann, the Bauhaus school, Art Deco and Le Corbusier.
According to Hakan, Biedermeier was not a traditional Anglo-Saxon style and it often appealed to people in creative professions such as advertising and the music and film industries. Elton John furnished his whole house in London with blond Biedermeier furniture and a few Art Deco pieces. Another rock artist to appreciate the style was the late rock singer Freddie Mercury from the band Queen.
Much of the contemporary furniture designed by Lord Linley in Britain today is inspired by Biedermeier designs. And as he often uses blond woods, his pieces mix very well with antique Biedermeier originals.
Hakan said that blond Biedermeier furniture was currently the most sought after. Furniture produced in Austria was usually made in cherry and walnut, as these woods were indigenous to the country. Mahogany was used less often, as it had to be imported. Pieces from Hungary were often made in ash. The South Germans used cherry wood and mahogany most often, but also walnut.
In North Germany birch wood and mahogany weare most usual, but elm was also popular. In Sweden and Finland birch was the most popular wood, whereas mahogany was mostly used for the grander pieces. The Russians loved their indigenous blond Karelian birch and poplar, but they were often made on the estates of aristocrats by their serfs.
The subtle appeal of Biedermeier furniture lay in its simplicity, which could so easily be combined with both Art Deco and contemporary furniture to create a relaxed mood and informal atmosphere, unlike other antique styles which demanded a more formal setting.
The design of Biedermeier furniture was based on utilitarian principles, its clean lines resurfacing a century later. Social forces originating in France were responsible for changing the artisan-patron system which had resulted in ever-more ornate furniture being made, and spread from there into Germany and the rest of Europe.
Vienna was the source of many typical designs, primarily because of the assured quality of workmanship from a city where apprentices were examined on use of material, construction, originality of design and quality of cabinetwork before being admitted to the league of approved master cabinetmakers.
From 1815 to 1830 design was severe and Neoclassical, and was influenced by style publications from England. From 1830 to 1848 design became plainer. Fifty or so years later and an exhibition at the Vienna applied arts museum in 1896 saw a revival of the earlier Neoclassical style that was to last until Art Deco was taken up. The influence of Biedermeier can also be seen in the various Bauhaus styles through their truth in material philosophy.
Today the far-reaching influence of the movement can be seen in the work of designer-makers like Marc Fish whose Orchidee desk was made for exhibition and has been seen at Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design and Antiques of the Future shows.