Biedermeier Style Furniture
The Biedermeier style developed as stylistic tastes shifted from Neoclassic to Romantic art.
The history of Biedermeier furniture is also the beginning of interior design for the ordinary home.
And although it’s been centuries since this style emerged, it remains as timeless and versatile as ever.
There’s a reason why antique Biedermeier furniture comes back in style time and time again.
Here’s the history of one of Europe’s most unique styles.
The Biedermeier Period
The Biedermeier Period lasted from 1815 to 1848 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
It was a period of transition in Northern and Central Europe, especially in Germany and Austria.
After decades of war, Europeans wanted peace, and so reform movements and liberal ideas took a backseat.
As a result, authoritarian governments rose to power in multiple countries in the proceeding decades.
In Germany and Austria, a prospering middle class that was a permanent part of an industrialized, urban nation was still relatively new.
Despite their growing affluence, many middle-class citizens felt ambiguous about their standing and the future.
Domineering governments discouraged political activism, which led people to create comfort in their own lives.
The changes in Northern European culture brought developments in the arts.
The new focus of many artists became the contentment of the middle class and private lives.
Paintings often depicted people engaged in ordinary activities, such as embroidering, writing, or visiting with family and friends.
The Biedermeier style got its name from a fictional character named Papa Biedermeier.
This character appeared in the satirical periodical Munich Fliegende Blätter and personified the cushy life of the middle-class.
Biedermeier Style Furniture
The middle class appreciated the comforting appeal of the Biedermeier style. The art helped them feel more secure about their place in modern society.
Since the fixation of everyday life emphasized the home, the most notable aspects of this style became furniture.
Before this period, the dominating design choices were the Empire and Directoire styles.
These Neoclassical variants underscored robust geometry, symmetry, and Greco-Roman themes.
While beautiful, these were the styles of aristocrats and royalty, not middle-class people.
As a result, cabinetmakers began making more everyday pieces that fit into the homes of ordinary citizens.
This trend led to a surge in innovative designs, particularly for chairs and sofas.
During the Biedermeier period, craftsmen created hundreds of variations of the simple chair.
Additionally, the sofa became a favorite for experimentation among cabinetmakers.
Although their rectangular shape and high back and sides looked uncomfortable, Biedermeier sofas were very comfy.
Characteristics of Biedermeier Style Furniture
The Biedermeier style began as a turn from the perceived fussiness of the Romantic era.
It is the first style to have started because of the middle class.
At the core of early Biedermeier furniture was sensibility.
Clean lines and limited ornamentation conform to this utilitarian ideal.
Subdued geometric forms typify early pieces of this period.
But as the middle class grew more comfortable with their position in society, their taste for elaborate decor evolved, and so did their furniture.
By the end of this period, Biedermeier pieces reflected earlier nationalist themes found in Neoclassic styles.
Glamorized variations of earlier design elements appeared toward the end of this period:
- Curved lines over straight edges
- Embellished facades instead of plain surfaces
- Whimsical humanistic figures
- Experimental textures
The inspiration for Biedermeier Furniture
Several designs influenced the overall aesthetic of Biedermeier furniture, such as:
- 19th century Georgian style, particularly the simplistic lines
- French Empire style under Napoleon I
- The Directoire period
Biedermeier furniture toned down more rigid elements found in the Empire style and added substance to Directoire parts.
This modification of both styles made Empire furniture more sensible and Directoire sturdier.
While dark woods with ormolu mounts defined Empire furniture, Biedermeier construction associated closer with Directoire materials.
Cabinetmakers primarily sourced locally available materials as they were more affordable than expensive woods like mahogany.
Walnut veneer over a softwood frame became common, but other woods included:
- Bird’s eye maple
Cabinetmakers stained these cheaper woods to imitate costly materials.
Like the Directoire style, Biedermeier cabinetmakers refrained from metal ornamentation.
Instead, inlay became the primary decorative feature, emphasizing the patterned walnut graining and light-colored trim.
Some cabinetmakers decorated with black or gold paint and pressed paper. And instead of bronze, they chose inexpensive stamped brass wreaths and festoons.
Horse-hair padded upholstered pieces wrapped with colorful velvet and calico.
The “all-purpose room” was superseded by the desire for separate spaces for individual activities, whether it was relaxing, cooking, eating, or sleeping.
However, during the Biedermeier period, middle-class homes did not have the space for all of these rooms.
As a result, the concept of Wohninsel, or “living island,” emerged.
Wohninsel promoted the re-emergence of the salon, or the “living room.”
As furniture took on new uses, people could do many activities in one room while being separated from others.
For example, the table à milieu was a separate centerpiece, but during the Biedermeier period, it became the family table.
Biedermeier was not as proper and rigid as preceding styles, which gave families the freedom to create less formal arrangements.
Middle-class homes started forming their own styles, eventually leading to the concept of interior design.
In more formal sitting areas, families usually included:
- an ottoman
- a round table
- a mirror
- armchairs or other seating upholstered in wool, silk, or damask
- a display cabinet
- A piano
Flowers, screens, work-tables, and other trinkets displayed in glass storage cabinets created an atmosphere of family life.
Josef Dannhauser (1780-1829)
Josef Dannhauser was the most important Biedermeier furniture designer, creating numerous extravagant pieces.
He owned a factory in Vienna beginning in 1804, employing as many as 350 workers who made furniture, sculptures, and home decor.
In addition to crafting Empire-style furniture for the Austrian royal family, he also made many pieces for the middle-class as well.
After Dannhauser’s death in 1829, his son Josef ran the factory until its closure in 1838.
Although Dannahauser produced a large body of work, he signed very few pieces that still exist.
Now, his roughly 2,500 drawings and printed catalogs help attribute these possible works.
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- “Biedermeier.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biedermeier#Furniture_design_and_interior_decorating.
- Brooke, Bob. “ Biedermeier Furniture: Form Follows Function.” Biedermeier Furniture: Form Follows Function, theantiquesalmanac.com/biedermeierfurniture.htm.
- Muscato, Christopher. “Biedermeier Period: Furniture & Design.” Study.com, Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/biedermeier-period-furniture-design.html.
- “The Biedermeier Style.” Rupert Cavendish, 1 Aug. 2016, www.rupertcavendish.co.uk/blog/the-biedermeier-style#.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Biedermeier Style.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Nov. 2012, www.britannica.com/art/Biedermeier-style.