The Biedermeier decorative style in furniture, popular in Germany and Austria (and to a lesser extent in Scandinavia), was born during the death-throes of the Napoleonic empire. In many respects, Biedermeier, which developed out of the Empire style, represents the period of social frustration and disappointment that resulted from the failure of the French Revolution.
The new order established by the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the spirit of the Holy Alliance had created an authoritarian, police-state atmosphere that stifled any expression of social and cultural ferment, while Metternich's repressive policies reached out from Vienna to the whole of central Europe.
The reaction of the well-off middle classes was to renounce political aspirations and thoughts of glory and retreat into a quiet, comfortable way of life, pursuing purely domestic satisfactions and applying themselves to commerce and industry.
Biedermeier reflects this tendency, both in style and in the types of furniture most in demand: chairs (with or without arms), sofas, drawing-room tables around which friends would gather to make music, engage in conversation and sing, desks, secretaries for keeping correspondence, worktables and side tables.
The furniture produced for the bourgeoisie in the German-speaking nations in this decade and a half is usually collectively called "Biedermeier," a combination of the German adjective "bieder" meaning plain, and one of the commonest German surnames, Meier.
The structural solidity and decorative sobriety of this furniture mirrors many of the virtues of the German bourgeoisie. Biedermeier furniture is solid, homely and comfortable-looking and has, at its best, great gemütlich charm, honesty and unpretentious elegance. It was for the most part built up from bold combinations of simple geometric shapes with uncluttered surfaces.
The purity of Empire décor and the uniformity of its component parts gave way in Biedermeier to a concern for comfort and convenience, which reflected the personality and interests of the occupants. Between 1855 and 1857, Ludwig Eichrodt published a collection of verses purportedly written by Gottlieb Biedermaier [sic], a fictional character -- the "decent common man" -- who was the prototype of the average German citizen of the early 19th century.
He was emblematic of the former Romantic enthusiast of Jena or Heidelberg, disillusioned after the national wars of independence, who had settled down and adopted middle-class habits. His characteristics were "good-natured decency" and a timorous and reverential respect for authority. Biedermeier was essentially the middle-class man, impoverished by wars and new taxes and obliged by the difficult economic situation to forego travel and international contacts and live in the restricted sphere of his own native parish.
This period saw a major crisis in agriculture and commerce, which were subject to ruinous British competition, the beginnings of industrialization, difficulties in communication, and therefore a kind of spiritual stagnation, resignation and withdrawal into individual values. The German word for it is Gemütsruhe, a quietism signifying an abandonment of the passionate feelings and ideals of Romanticism.
The defining aspect of Biedermeier furniture, even of high quality, is its homely character: it was a style created by the middle-class for the middle-class. It seemed to mark a rejection of outward show and decorum in favor of domestic peace and privacy.
Its rounded, comfortable forms corresponded to the atmosphere prevailing in Europe after the Congress of Vienna, when political repression prompted members of the bourgeoisie to withdraw from public life and devote themselves to private pursuits.
This situation encouraged the creation of small items of functional furniture: desks and work-tables, card tables, dumb waiters, music-stands, canterburies, flower holders and laundry baskets. In making these occasional pieces, contemporary craftsmen showed great inventiveness.
Some are minor masterpieces. Imported mahogany was used for veneering carcasses of less prestigious woods, alongside walnut, cherry, birch, maple and ash. For surface decoration, craftsmen were also skilled in stringing and marquetry, using light woods on mahogany, dark or ebonized woods on warm, honeyed backgrounds of fruit woods.
Doing justice to the materials was the overriding principle during the Biedermeier period. Wood was the basic material, and the plank the basis of construction. Wood was prized to an unprecedented degree, and became the fundamental form of decoration in Biedermeier furniture.
The plank became the dominant formal element: glued into large sheets and, of course, veneered, it formed smooth level surfaces. Having lost their load-bearing function, vertical moldings and pilasters ceased to have any architectural or sculptural function and became merely flat strips. Base, cornice and pediment were, in most cases, reduced to a simple plank. By such means the style's basis in craftsmanship was intentionally made visible.
Raw materials and tools, therefore, were determining factors in the creation of the Biedermeier style. But its materials were not the only point of departure in the formal development of the style: the purpose of the furniture -- its function -- also played a part.
Truth to materials and functionalism were the basic principles in the evolution of the Biedermeier style and its forms. The resultant use of the plank produced the surface flatness that is a pervading characteristic of the style. Methods of decoration were subordinated to this love of surface flatness.
The primary and most important decorative element in Biedermeier furniture was the wood itself: the visible structure of wood, its grain, was exploited to maximum effect.
The veneer used on a piece of furniture, however large, always came from a single tree. It was joined vertically so as to produce a single unbroken length that expressed the upward growth of the tree.
In contrast to undecorated wood, marquetry became much less important and never completely covered the surface of a piece of Biedermeier furniture. Motifs inlaid in a circular or oval format, including the favorite scallop, a shell or a flower, were used. Rays and star shapes also occurred, as did tendrils covering broad areas, stringing lines and framing bands, which stressed the shape of the individual cube but never outlined the complete piece of furniture.
In the Empire period, mahogany was the only type of wood used for furniture worthy of mention. In the Biedermeier period the use of mahogany died out almost entirely. Craftsmen favored lighter woods, which were more in tune with the striving for comfort.
The desire to use the grain as a means of decoration resulted in a search for more vividly grained woods. Walnut was the wood most suited to the decorative requirements of the Biedermeier period: its attractive grain and considerable variety of color made it suitable for a wide range of applications.
Bright light colors were preferred, in the same way that simple geometric forms were favored. These requirements were best met by fruit-woods. Pear-wood and, in particular, cherry-wood were the favorite woods after walnut.
Simplicity and clean lines, combined with light-colored woods, lend Biedermeier furniture a curiously modern appearance. The result was an invigorating mixture of radically original creations and plainer pieces whose functional simplicity was an inspiration to the German pioneers of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.