The distinctive style developed in Austria-Hungary in the first half of the 19th century bad a lasting influence on European design and left a legacy of fine furniture.
During the first two decades of the 19th century, elegance was a byword in European furniture. The rather grand designs of the British Regency style and the French Empire period - which had themselves developed from the neo-classical taste of the late 18th century - had a strong influence.
Regency and Empire
furniture, though, was largely made for the aristocracy and the newly wealthy classes. In the sprawling
Austro-Hungarian Empire, the style was taken over and adapted by a new breed, the middle class of managerial and clerical workers created by the onset of the industrial revolution, who flourished in the general prosperity that followed the end of the
After 1848, a year when Europe was wracked with political revolutions, this style came to be known as Biedermeier. The name derives from Bieder, meaning 'good, honest' and Mejer, a common German surname, and at first was delivered dripping with vengeful sarcasm. Later, as post-revolutionary anger at the bourgeoisie gradually died away, the name stuck as a simple descriptive term.
Biedermeier furniture made after about 1840 tended to be more elaborate than earlier pieces. After 1860, the style merged into English mid-Victorian, and lost its distinctive features. Biedermeier style has continued to be influential, though, particularly so in Scandinavia, and has often been revived.
Well-polished pale veneers and elegantly simple shapes were the hallmarks of the Biedermeier style, which was rooted in middle-class tastes.
The Biedermeier style was a simplified form of neo-classical. It retained the symmetry and sense of proportion, but was more restrained at least at first - in its use of decoration and details such as columns and cornices. As an exception to this rule, much use was made of the lyre shape, both as a decorative motif and as a model for extravagantly shaped pieces.
One of the most distinctive features of Biedermeier furniture was the use of pale veneers. Craftsmen in Vienna and Berlin, the twin centres of the style, used local walnut, fruitwoods, maple, sycamore, birch and ash. All are light coloured, especially compared with the rich brown of the mahogany and rosewood used in the rest of Europe.
Inlays of contrasting woods were used more and more, often to stunning effect, as the
style evolved. Pieces of stained or ebonized veneer were used for contrast. Brass inlays
appeared on later pieces.
The Biedermeier style was never particularly popular in Britain, where contemporary taste ran more to heavier furniture with dark woods and plenty of carved detail. As a result it isn't easy to find today, and most pieces will be sold by specialist furniture dealers and auction houses. Those Biedermeier pieces that did find their way out of Germany are sometimes mistaken for Regency pieces. The main difference is in the colour, though this is not so obvious on later pieces, where mahogany was increasingly used.
Another potential source of confusion is less expected. The use of pale veneers and
strong geometric shapes - both the box-like construction of classic early Biedermeier and the bold curves of later examples - means the style can sometimes resemble the better furniture of the 1930s.
There is a difference between pieces made in Vienna and those made in Berlin. Viennese Biedermeier
is more graceful and lighter, while Berlin work is more solid and architectural. German makers tended to use darker woods, too, while the Austrians made much more use of local fruitwoods - particularly cherry - and birch.
A full range of furniture was made in the Biedermeier style in all its periods. Look out for secretaire desks, chests of three or more drawers, wardrobes, corner cupboards and various sorts of table. Comfort was important, and seat furniture was usually stuffed with horsehair. Sprung seats were rare before 1840. The arms were usually left in bare wood.
Much of the appeal of Biedermeier furniture lies in its attractive veneers, and you should always look for pieces where this is intact. Some replacement is possible, though it can be difficult to match veneers exactly.
Biedermeier veneers were typically cut along, rather than across, the grain. At first, they were hand-cut and quite thick and uneven, but by 1820 the technology was available to machine-cut thin slices, and this is what you will find in most
pieces. The woods used look better for a polished though not French-polished - finish, and a piece with a, good sheen will always be worth more than one which has dulled.
TO RECOGNIZE & REFINISH ANTIQUES FOR PLEASURE, 4th Editionby Jacquelyn Peake