Wednesday, September 18, 2013
The German Influence in American Furniture
QUESTION: My husband and I recently discovered an antique wardrobe at a house sale and fell in love with it. We purchased it but have no idea what style it is. The wardrobe is about six feet tall and has large raised diamond shapes on its doors. There’s an additional diamond panel across the top. Can you tell me what this might be?
ANSWER: It looks like you just bought yourself a fine example of American Biedermeier furniture.
The Biedermeier style, itself, was a neoclassic style that originated in Germany in 1815. Popular until about 1850, it was a potpourri of classic features taken from French Empire, Sheraton, Regency, and Directoire styles.
The style’s name derived from Ludwig Eichrodt and Adolf Kussmaul, who depicted the typical bourgeois of the period in the caricature of a well-to-do man without culture 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. Critics adopted this name to describe furniture that represented the unimaginative taste of the average person.
However, the style 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.
A simpler version of the French Empire and Directoire styles, Biedermeier furniture was comfortable, unpretentious, and spare and was especially suited to the rising European middle class.
By the 1840s Biedermeier gradually gave way to the curves and flourishes of the neo-Rococo revival in Vienna. Early pieces were generally rectilinear, undecorated, and simple. Towards the middle of period, craftsmen employed curves more in chair backs, legs, etc. Scroll forms became popular after 1840 on bases and legs often with upper terminal animal heads which were sometimes gilded.
When German immigrants came to America in the mid-19th century, many headed for the middle of the country around Missouri.
In the Missouri settlements, the German cabinetmakers modified the sophisticated Biedermeier motifs to fit the simple tastes of their customers. The style's characteristic decorative veneers, curved legs and chair backs, and geometric shapes on flat surfaces were maintained, but the features were simplified. Countrified versions of Biedermeier chairs typically had outsweeping saber front legs and backs made of two horizontal rails.
Simple examples have wooden seats while more elaborate ones are upholstered. Biedermeier influences in wardrobes include raised-panel doors enhanced by diamond motifs and deep cornices. They would have called these chifferobes.