Monday, June 29, 2015

History of Furniture: Biedermeier

After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, and before the European revolutions of 1848, there was a stylistic movement in art, literature, music, and design known as Biedermeier. Like any period in history, such elements of culture are always influenced by what is happening politically, and is usually a reaction to styles that directly preceded it. The pendulum loves to swing, and in this Biedermeier period, people surrounded themselves with an interior that was a version of the Napoleonic Empire style, which itself was a sort of toned down take on Louis XVI. But Biedermeier distilled things down even further, concentrating on making the Neo-Classical shapes and motifs into basic geometric shapes.

The Industrial Revolution helped to expand the growing middle class and suddenly, the masses had access to wealth and leisure time like they never had before. They wanted to have nicer homes, nice furniture, and nice objects to show off their new-found wealth. But they did not want to appear ostentatious. So we have stately pieces of furniture being made in humble local woods (since exotic woods coming into Germany were being heavily taxed) and especially veneers (often featuring a a beautiful bookmatched grain as seen in the last table in this post), Neo-Classical legs became simplified, and chair backs became scrolls carved out of the wood itself without any additional ornamentation. We see scroll arms on settees but again, they are almost cut out of a veneer and not really carved with any intricacy. We see Neo-Classical pillars as well but in a smaller scale on chests, desks, and armoires. Homes became more personal and comfortable--out of a necessity to withdraw from the public sphere, political turmoil and an oppressive, tight regime--with walls in pale hues or striped wallpaper, and objects of sentimental value like vases and decorative silver.

Because of its simplicity, Biedermeier furniture has an almost Art Deco quality to it that was certainly before its time. Yet the style is generally elegant with smaller, more delicate proportions. For this reason, Biedermeier furnishings can blend harmoniously with many other styles, from any of the Louis periods, the afore-mentioned Art Deco, to more contemporary styles. It would be a great foil with Mid-Century Modern, or even a 1980s Memphis piece (more on Memphis in an upcoming post...stay tuned!). Original Biedermeier pieces can be pricey, but are still available! If you find something at auction, chances are it will have been reupholstered since original fabric tended to be exotic silks stuffed with horse hair!

Happy designing!

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