Biedermeier Furniture: Form Follows Function

By: Bob Brooke • May 17, 2012 • 0 Comments

Many people probably believe that the design concept of "form follows function" began with the Bauhaus in Germany during the 1930s. In fact, it began a century before during the Biedermeier Era in southern Germany and Austria. A German- based decorative movement which spread throughout Europe from 1815 to 1848, Biedermeier was a simpler version of the French Empire and Directoire styles.

The style’s name derived from Ludwig Eichrodt and Adolf Kussmaul, who depicted the typical bourgeois of the period under the name "Gottfried Biedermeier."–"Gott" meaning "God"; fried" meaning "peace"; "Bieder" meaning "commonplace":_meier" meaning "steward"-- in their Fliegende Blatter (Pamphlets), a Viennese journal of the day. However, it wasn’t called Biedermeier until 1886, when Georg Hirth wrote a book about 19th-century interior design, and used the word "Biedermeier" to describe domestic German furniture of the 1820s and 1830s.

The Congress of Vienna from 1814 to 1815 had sought to return Europe to the status quo before the wars. Governments censored publications and stifled political liberalism. As a result, people cultivated domesticity and delighted in the details of their surroundings.

Biedermeier furniture suited the modest size and unostentatious needs of comfortable bourgeois houses. The new bourgeoises collected paintings, knickknacks, souvenirs, and gifts ostentatiously displayed in glass cabinets.

During the periods of Rococo and Classicism, a gradual subdivision of living areas took place. There was a move away from the all-purpose room, relegating living, cooking, eating, and sleeping to separate rooms. In middle-class homes, with fewer separate rooms, this concept created the Wohninsel, or "living island." This made it possible to perform a number of activities in one room--writing, sewing, music making--each characterized by different furniture, and quite deliberately separated from the others. Thus, the living room or as it was known, the salon, was born.

An ottoman, several arm chairs and chairs upholstered in woolen material, sometimes in silk or damask; then a round table, a mirror and where possible a glass fronted case for silver and a piano provided the atmosphere of a "better’ room. The less severe appearance of Biedermeier furniture led to a less formal arrangement of rooms as a whole. Flowers, screens, work-tables and knick-knacks of all sorts helped to give a sense of family life. The bourgeoisie began to form a personal style, thus creating what’s now known as interior design, making Biedermeier one of the first design movements to reflect it.

The characteristic suites of furniture were arranged in the corners--there were areas for eating, for chatting, for reading and doing embroidery and each would have a sofa, table and chairs, the most numerous items created.

Prior to 1830, mahogany appeared in Viennese furniture and gradually replaced walnut. The adoption of this imported wood, which was often given a light finish, caused some craftsmen to apply matching stains and finishes to pieces made in walnut, pear wood, and Hungarian "watered" ash.

And by 1830 Viennese craftsmen no longer relied upon French, German and Italian designers for inspiration. Native products based upon Directoire and Empire designs were highly original, showing a good understanding of form, balance and the use of ornament in gilded bronze.

Attention to economy meant that local timber was mostly used, especially walnut veneers over a soft wood frame. Inlay served as the main decorative element, featuring the patterned graining of walnut and often reduced to a light-colored border. Sometimes, craftsmen used black poplar or bird's eye maple and colored woods such as cherry and pear became popular.

The finer Viennese designs possessed more grace and elegance than the designs of Bavaria. Viennese craftsmen made drawers and their housings so perfect and fitted that, even today, when a larger drawer is pulled out and returned, the other drawers in the same bank will be propelled forward by the force of air created. They also dovetailed, molded and finished drawer linings, making intervening partitions flush on top and paneled beneath.

Cabinetmakers decorated their furniture with black or gold paint, and often employed less expensive stamped brass wreaths and festoons rather than bronze for decorative effect and gilded wooden stars instead of the elaborate metal ornaments of the Empire style. Sometimes, they chose cheaper, new materials such as pressed paper.

No previous period produced such a wealth of different types of seating, with a myriad of variations on the basic scheme of four legs, a seat, and a back. From 1815-1835, Biedermeier craftsmen discovered that a chair could be given literally hundreds of different shapes.

Upholsterers padded their creations with horse-hair and covered them with brightly colored velvet and calico. Pleated fabrics covered furniture, walls, ceilings, and alcoves.

By the 1840s the Biedermeier style became romanticized–straight lines became curved and serpentine; simple surfaces became more and more embellished beyond the natural materials; humanistic form became more fantastic; and textures became experimental.

An identifying feature of Biedermeier furniture is its extremely restrained geometric appearance. Some furniture took on new roles; for example, the table became the family table, around which chairs were set for evening activities. Or table tops could be placed against the wall in a vertical position. A portable piano had a drawer for sewing things, while the upper drawer of a chest of drawers might be converted into a writing desk.

The sofa became one of the most popular innovations. Rectangular, with high back and sides, sofas looked deceptively hard. In fact, their depth and solidity made them very comfortable.

Armchairs, too, became more comfortable as changing fashions permitted men to sit back and take their ease.

Cabinetmakers used boards as the main element in constructing their pieces, which meant that they designed furniture to be seen from the front and executed its ornamentation–relief pillars, pilasters, and caryatids–with this in mind.

The bourgeoises loved music, thus the ever-present piano, the polished surface of which became a resting place for clocks, pieces of porcelain and the inevitable basket of flowers. There was also a vogue for cabinets to house collections of objects which might proclaim the artistic sensibility of the household.

Biedermeier comfort emphasized family life and private activities, especially letter writing– giving prominence to secretary desks. These featured a central niche, a mirror, and secret drawers. Along with wardrobes and cupboards, these were the items of furniture most often made as master works.

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