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Birth of the Modern

Intended as interior design for the “common man,” so-called Biedermeier style turned out to be uncommonly prescient.

Suite of four Biedermeier side chairs attributed to Josef Danhauser

Suite of four Biedermeier side chairs attributed to Josef Danhauser, solid maple with mahogany inlays, Vienna, circa 1830, 35 x 20 x 20 inches;

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Biedermeier furniture didn’t have a name when it was new, and didn’t receive one until decades after it ran its course. “Biedermeier” comes from the moniker of a fictional village-dweller who starred in satirical German-language poems of the 1850s. His surname translates to “common man” or “everyman,” and the term didn’t stick to the early 19th-century European furniture until the 1890s. But unlike other aesthetic movements that win their names in hindsight, Biedermeier’s original meaning does not capture the qualities that we treasure in Biedermeier furniture now—its clean, sleek modernism, achieved centuries before modernism arrived on the scene. “A lot of the forms, when you look at them, they look 20th-century,” says Adam Brown, principal of Iliad, a Manhattan gallery that specializes in Biedermeier. “It’s in keeping with the modernist aesthetic that’s all the rage right now.” He points to a circa-1825 pearwood veneer Biedermeier pedestal table, dubbed a “trumpet” table for the shape of its base and its single central support. “It could easily be mistaken for 20th-century design,” Brown says, noting that the trumpet table inspired Eero Saarinen to create the tulip table in 1957.

On the other hand, New York dealer Karl Kemp points out that the clean simplicity of Biedermeier was an inheritance from ancient Greek and Roman furniture. In the book he co-authored, The World of Biedermeier (Thames & Hudson, 2001), Kemp observes that “Biedermeier was the paring down of the complex aesthetics of Classicism to essential moods, which resulted in designs that are extremely refreshing, relevant, and timeless.”

Michael Flick of Bonnin Ashley Antiques in Miami points to another 21st-century advantage of Biedermeier. “It also lends a warmth. If you go to a contemporary environment and see antique Biedermeier pieces, they work, but they have warm, beautiful woods,” he says. Referring to the use of French polish, a labor-intensive period finishing process that enhances the appeal of Biedermeier, he says, “It’s so different than anything used today. It does not obscure the beautiful grain, which was what [Biedermeier] was about—the celebration of beautiful grains.”

Peter Janowski, owner of Biedermeier-Vienna, a gallery with locations in Chicago and Vienna, Austria, identifies three aspects that make Biedermeier what it is: “Design, the beauty of the veneer, and its functionality.” Design shines through in the proto-modernist nature of Iliad’s trumpet table. Beautiful veneers might be the most visually alluring detail of Biedermeier; while its practitioners were not the first to decorate with wood, the advent of mechanical and steam-driven saws in the 1820s let cabinetmakers cut thin slices from woods that were too difficult to cut veneers from by hand. “The way Biedermeier uses veneers is unique,” says Tanya Paul, Curator of European Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) in Wisconsin, which has a strong Biedermeier collection. “You don’t see anything like it before that point.”

The Biedermeier style’s reliance on wood grain to shoulder most or all of the decorative work reaches its zenith with table tops. Janowski has a walnut center table, dating to 1820–25, with a stunning top. It is a fine example of bookmatching, a woodworking technique in which pieces of veneer mirror each other like the pages of an open book. “It shows how sensitive people were to the beauty [of the wood], and they knew how to use it,” he says, going on to explain how the otherwise unadorned tabletop approaches modernism—its grain has “almost abstract forms, something that people can put their eyes on and look for shapes.”

Functionality is another issue. Biedermeier was built to be used, and with the exception of some of the more delicate chairs, it can still be. Certain varieties of furniture seem especially far-sighted in an era where trophy apartments in world hubs can sell for more than $500 per square foot. Virtually all Biedermeier tables, including Iliad’s trumpet table and Biedermeier-Vienna’s walnut center table, have tops that tilt from a horizontal position to a vertical one. Owners who need to convert the dining room to a dance floor can tilt the top and store the table against a wall, regaining precious space. Janowski says he “tries to convince clients to use [Biedermeier pieces] the way they were used 200 years ago,” and he’s had success on this score with “vitrines, armoires, chests, the most heavy-duty pieces.”

The generally accepted brackets on Biedermeier’s lifespan are 1815–48, but these brackets are political, not aesthetic. The year 1815 marks the Congress of Vienna, when most of the city-states and countries whose cabinetmakers advanced the Biedermeier style haggled and redrew their borders in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, and 1848 was the year in which rebellion and revolution blazed in most of those same places. This accounts for the retro aspect of the retroactive naming of Biedermeier; to Europeans looking back over the 19th century, the period appears relatively peaceful, even if it did not seem that way at the time. Of course, the forces that were tamped down in 1815 and burst forth in ’48 simmered throughout the years in between. Simple, unfussy Biedermeier furnishings shaped the private spaces where Austrians, Germans, Prussians, and others hashed over the prickly, complex, controversial issues that they couldn’t safely talk about in public. And though it is described as a style for the middle class, and certainly was, Biedermeier was not exclusively a middle-class phenomenon. Napoleon’s wars destroyed a lot of wealth, and broke aristocrats found much to like in Biedermeier’s avoidance of ormolu and other gilded fittings, which could cost as much as the piece itself (or more), and in Biedermeier’s favoring of fruit woods and local timbers over exotics like mahogany, which had to be imported from distant lands and were taxed accordingly.

Despite everything, a few people nonetheless had the finances to commission lavish furnishings in the Biedermeier style. Right now, MAM has two spectacular pieces on display: An Austrian globe table from the first quarter of the 19th century and a Viennese writing cabinet dating to 1810–15. The globe table, or Globustisch, is a rare Biedermeier form and a cherished one; most examples reside in museums. While it has a function—it was made for storing sewing gear—Paul observes that it is “too specialized, too detailed, and too elaborate to be a practical piece of furniture. There is not a surface that’s unornamented.” Within the camouflage-like decoration on the legs are sections of root wood, one of those woods that could only be cut into veneers with the new generation of saws. “[Root wood] has very pronounced grain in it. That’s why it’s so highly prized,” Paul says.

The oval-shaped writing cabinet is a decorative hybrid, reveling in its choice woods (maple veneer, ebonized pearwood, mahogany) as any good Biedermeier piece does, and reveling just as exuberantly in its Empire-style touches, which include gilding, elaborate hardware, and figurative elements. “To me, the thing that’s most interesting about it is it has a foot in both worlds,” Paul says. “It harkens back to the Empire style and it looks to Biedermeier style.” Both the globe table and the writing cabinet will be on view at the museum until Thanksgiving, and possibly after that.

Biedermeier furnishings were produced in many workshops across Europe, but it is the Viennese designs that tend to have the most modern-looking profile. Proto-modernism’s reign in Vienna might be a product of keen competition. Research shows that more than 950 registered master cabinetmakers were active in the city in 1823. Chief among them was Josef Danhauser, whose furnishings are much sought after today. “He was one of the most innovative cabinetmakers in Vienna,” says Heinrich “Heinz” Leichter of Ritter Antik, a New York gallery that has handled Biedermeier since 1968. Referring to a walnut-veneered sofa he has that was created between 1810 and 1820 and matches known Danhauser drawings, Leichter says, “There is nothing from other periods to see in this sofa. The total design of the sofa is very modern. Only Danhauser was able to do this.”

Leichter had the sofa cleaned, had its French polish rejuvenated, and chose a colored fabric for its upholstery that meets contemporary tastes. Choosing more up-to-date fabrics is common among Biedermeier dealers, and a look at a period-correct piece illustrates why. MAM reconstructed the upholstery of a circa-1815 Danhauser settee in its possession from actual surviving drawings, which called for a cream-white fabric with green accents. “The form of the piece has a real modernity to it, but it has a fussy swag,” Paul says, while agreeing that white was a dangerous choice of color and likely indicative of the wealth of its original owner. “It’s not a functional thing in that sense. You’re not going to eat off it,” she says, laughing. “It’s not something meant to be used very heavily.” The settee may go on display at MAM after the globe table and the writing cabinet rotate out.

While Biedermeier spanned several decades, most acknowledge that its aesthetic shifted after 1830 and became less modernistic. “You start to have a transitional style,” says Flick. “It still retains some of the austere values of what Biedermeier was, but it starts to become more decorative.” Coco House and Company of West Palm Beach, Fla., has a mid 19th-century satinwood secretaire, possibly from Sweden, that hints at the shift. Its minimized hardware and the emphasis on the beauty of the wood speak of Biedermeier, but the crown, or top, features scrolls and other neoclassical-like details.

Daring and cutting-edge in their time, Biedermeier furnishings will continue to find a place in 21st-century interiors because they fit into them seamlessly while losing none of the authenticity of their 19th-century origins. “Biedermeier has always been the hub of any well-composed environment,” says Brown. “It always stays in taste. You can pair it with hard-edge contemporary art to midcentury modern. It’s timeless. It doesn’t really fade away, and it hasn’t yet.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2016

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