Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular

Focused on function and comfort and associated with the pan-German middle class, Biedermeier decorative arts grew out of the French Empire style. Initially a deprecating term, Biedermeier became a descriptor for an entire lifestyle.

Summary of Event

The term Biedermeier was not used to describe a style until after 1853, after it had lost general popularity. The tongue-in-cheek origin of the term has been variously attributed to the following three sources: first, to Papa Biedermeier, a self-opinionated buffoonish cartoon character who commented on all topics, including the decorative arts, personifying middle-class taste to readers of the German humor magazine Fliegenden Blättern
Fliegenden Blättern (flying sheets); second, to Gottlieb Biedermeier Biedermeier, Gottlieb , a pseudonym for the collaborative work of two or more German poets, including Ludwig Eichrodt Eichrodt, Ludwig (1827-1892), based upon the German word bieder (plain, conventional, honest) and the common German surname Meier, a sort of “good-old-boy” image; and third, to Biedermann and Bummelmeier, two cheery comic characters who lampooned middle-class Germans in the 1830’s. Biedermeier furniture
Furniture design
Germany;furniture design
[kw]Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular (c. 1815-1848)
[kw]Furniture Style Becomes Popular, Biedermeier (c. 1815-1848)
[kw]Style Becomes Popular, Biedermeier Furniture (c. 1815-1848)
[kw]Popular, Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes (c. 1815-1848)
Biedermeier furniture
Furniture design
Germany;furniture design
[g]United States;c. 1815-1848: Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular[0760]
[g]Germany;c. 1815-1848: Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular[0760]
[c]Art;c. 1815-1848: Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular[0760]
[c]Architecture;c. 1815-1848: Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular[0760]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1815-1848: Biedermeier Furniture Style Becomes Popular[0760]
Schinkel, Karl Friedrich
Danhauser, Josef Ulrich
Leistler, Carl
Mohn, Gottlob Samuel
Kothgasser, Anton
Biemann, Dominik
Egermann, Friedrich
Kersting, Georg Friedrich
Heinrich, Franz
Muller, Friedrich

Elegant yet simple, and featuring geometric designs that rely on figured veneers rather than the ornate decoration of the French Empire style, the less-severe Biedermeier furniture inspired less-formal home arrangement, usually featuring a piano and knickknacks, all to give a sense of everyday family life. Derived from those classical lines combined with traditional painted peasant furniture, Biedermeier suited the more modest size and practical needs of comfortable middle-class homes, which were now set back farther from the street, symbolic of the emphasis on the personal and on privacy.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel Schinkel, Karl Friedrich and Josef Ulrich Danhauser Danhauser, Josef Ulrich were key figures in the diffusion of the style. Danhauser’s workshop (1804-1838) produced innovations such as the sofa and more-comfortable armchairs. Featuring coil-spring upholstery, the furniture style was rectangular and sturdy, at first boxy but by 1840 curvy. Chairs had concave or saber-like legs, and tables usually had curves, their supports lyre- or melon-like pedestals and tops usually round. The down-to-earth woods used were farm and orchard, including apple, elm, pear, cherry, and birch, with light finishes, inlays, little or no carving, pressed brass ornaments in imitation of ormolu, painted decoration of motifs from antiquity—animal, floral, or classical vase and urn—or both. However, mahogany, rosewood, walnut, maple, sycamore, and poplar were used, generally with inlaid patterns of ebony or black-stained fruitwood.

Biedermeier occasional tables owe much to the designs of Carl Leistler. Leistler, Carl Those tables usually featured richly figured veneers of walnut and Karelian birch, restrained ebonized or parcel-gilt decoration, and fundamentally classical designs. They were often mounted or carved with Egyptian motifs and stood on lion’s paw “feet.” The fall-front secretaire-on-chest was popular, veneered in indigenous woods such as birch, poplar, maple, or fruitwood, a simple classical design relying on figuring of veneers for decorative interest. There was an emphasis on smaller pieces for specific functions: ladies’ writing desks, sewing tables, cheval mirrors, bookcases, small tables, pianos, and china cabinets.

Northern Germany saw less color and variety in its furniture, most often featuring mahogany with black horsehair upholstery. The Dutch preferred the restrained elegance of Biedermeier but in lighter woods such as amboyna, ash, walnut, mahogany, and fruitwoods, with still gently curving, essentially Grecian designs.

Furniture was not the only decorative art associated with Biedermeier. Glass Glass;design was characterized by elaborate surface decoration, either in a repeating pattern or applied irregularly, emphasizing the chunkiness of glass itself. Gottlob Samuel Mohn Mohn, Gottlob Samuel had learned from his father a thin, transparent enameling technique for tumblers and beakers. His father was a home painter in Dresden, Germany. In 1811, Mohn went to Vienna, where he met Anton Kothgasser, Kothgasser, Anton an Austrian painter at the royal porcelain factory. They became known as enamelers of simple, straight-sided beakers in the Biedermeier style beginning in 1814. One design was the trumpet-shaped beaker with a heavy foot, often facet-cut, called a Ranftbecher. Kothgasser Kothgasser, Anton specialized in romantic watercolors, landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, and allegorical and neoclassical subjects. Mohn specialized in silhouettes and allegorical subjects but was best known for topographical motifs: palaces, cityscapes, and tourist views, typically with gilded borders. Another design was the Perlbecher, a beaker with a closely woven net of multicolored glass beads around the base of a bowl and the goblet bearing portraits of monarchs or notables in sulphide cameos.

Dominik Biemann, Biemann, Dominik a Bohemian glass Glass;design engraver trained in Prague, worked in Silesia at Sklarzska Poreba glassworks. He was the top engraver of portraits on glass with heavy cutting on base and the gold rim typical of the period. He was one of first to follow the tourist trade, taking commissions. In 1823, Friedrich Egermann, Egermann, Friedrich a glass-factory owner in Blottendorf in northern Bohemia, had discovered how to produce hyalith, a dense black glass, Glass;colored and lithyalin, a marbled glass similar to jasper or agate, in colors from brick streaked with green to deep blues and purples. He also discovered how to stain glass with gold, using silver. This stain was frequently used by Kothgasser as a background. Another Bohemian discovery, overlaying or encasing glass vessels in opaque glass of another color and then cutting away broad facets to reveal the contrast with the panels shaped, gilded, painted, or engraved, was basic to Biedermeier-style glass.

Biedermeier style was introduced in the Meissen porcelain factory in Germany in 1830, with pieces similar in form to earlier neoclassical ones but with heavier and less-elaborate decoration, often painted with topographical views. Matthias Niedermayer Niedermayer, Matthias (d. 1827) was the director of the state ceramic factory Vienna;ceramic factory in Vienna when, in the 1830’s, the neoclassical-restrained eighteenth century shapes were replaced by the heavier, rounded shapes of the Biedermeier style. Biedermeier-like pieces were also produced at the Tucker factory in Philadelphia Philadelphia;ceramic factory from 1826 to 1838.

Paintings deemed appropriate for the “quiet happiness of the domestic scene” were produced by Georg Kersting Kersting, Georg Friedrich and Franz Heinrich. Heinrich, Franz The most typical Biedermeier painting was the genre picture, which told a common story. Other Biedermeier-style painters included watercolorist Peter Fendi Fendi, Peter ; portrait painters Erwin Speckter Speckter, Erwin , Julius Oldach Oldach, Julius , and Victor Emil Janssen Janssen, Victor Emil ; and landscape artists Friedrich Wasmann Wasmann, Friedrich , Christian Morgenstern Morgenstern, Christian , Jacob Gensler Gensler, Jacob , and Louis Gurlitt Gurlitt, Louis , who painted detailed nature scenes of northern Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy. Only certain subjects could be painted, by law.

Toys, Toys;German too, were touched by the style. Friedrich Muller Muller, Friedrich , founder of the German Sonneberg doll industry, invented molds to mass-produce the papier-mâché dolls’ heads typical of Biedermeier-style dolls. They featured elaborate hairstyles molded in papier-mâché, with features similar to the wooden dolls that preceded them, with painted eyes and eyebrows and black molded hair. The papier-mâché shoulder head was glued to a kid body (made normally from white or pink leather) with usually unjointed limbs of wood or kid, the hands typically spoon-shaped with a separate thumb, and the flat, painted shoes typical of dolls made before 1860. Biedermeier-style doll heads of china were introduced between 1845 and 1860, featuring bald heads with a black dot covered with a curled plait of real hair, fine features, and delicately painted faces. These heads were known as highbrows or highborns.


The ideal that the German states would forget political differences and join in a united Germany, part of the patriotic propaganda of the post-War of Liberation (1813) period, had collapsed. Financial reforms and deflationary policies led to a shortage of money and little credit. Merchants had to contend with competition from English manufactured goods, and landowners faced the threat of imported Russian wheat. The Austrian emperor, neither a heroic figure nor in need of other than the practical, inexpensive furniture that was all his treasury allowed, led the move to a simpler style in keeping with the changed conditions. The middle-class emphasis on practicality and family life emulated the emphasis of the royal family. Biedermeier’s original mockery could be attributed to the refusal of the German aristocracy and administrative and middle classes to mix; middle-class attempts to emulate the nobility led to social parody. The heroic and classical overtones of the original ideal were replaced by an almost antiheroic style linked to the middle class or bourgeoisie.

Stringent social controls had been established by rulers fearing the diffusion of the democratic ideals of the French Revolution (1789). During this period, known as Vormärz, Vormärz era
Germany;Vormärz lodges, clubs, and societies were shut down and members imprisoned, so people retired to the relative safety and privacy of their homes and proven friends. Intimate gatherings and dancing became the norm. Whereas Romanticism had focused on the self, Biedermeier would shift to interpersonal relationships. Because this was a period of ever-more innovative technology such as steam-powered transportation and laborsaving household appliances (sewing machines and gas lighting Lighting
[p]Lighting;gas ), and because of the introduction of mass production, the individual who was a Biedermeier preferred the personal, homey touch of craftsmen’s work to machine-made items.

By 1848, the Biedermeier age was over. Another revolution had taken place in Paris, and so the Viennese demanded similar design reforms, which broke the social strata.

Further Reading

  • Chase, Linda, Karl Kemp, and Lois Lammerhuber. The World of Biedermeier. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. A discussion of the history and uses of the Biedermeier style. Includes photos.
  • Klein, Rosemary, ed. Encyclopedia of Antiques. Stamford, Conn.: Longmeadow Press, 1989. Includes a historical and comparative overview of the Biedermeier style.
  • Miller, Judith, ed. Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia. London: Octopus, 1999. A historical and comparative overview of all Biedermeier decorative arts.
  • Rak, Jiri. Biedermeier. Milan, Italy: Skira, 2001. This work focuses on Biedermeier-style furniture.

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