Biedermeier, a bona fide style in its own right, developed clearly out of previous traditions—most notably Empire style. While the Empire style was an exaggerated, celebratory approach to furniture-making and design with royal courts and aristocratic mansions in mind, Biedermeier style offered a much more practical take, suitable for the middle-class home.
Biedermeier’s Fancier Cousin–Empire Style
The “empire” refers to the First French Empire of Napoleon I, and the idea was that that every piece of artwork and design should celebrate and pay homage to the expanding nation.
Thus, furniture, porcelain, and textiles would be adorned with imperial symbols like bees, wreath-ringed letter Ns, stars, eagles, and more. Swans, a favorite of the Empress Josephine, would decorate the arms of chairs and the headboards of beds. Egyptian hieroglyphs were incorporated to mark the spread of the empire to North Africa and the Middle East. The materials were as extravagant as the designs, with artists favoring expensive, imported woods like mahogany and ebony.
The style began in France but quickly spread to other realms, developing equivalents like Regency and Federal styles in Britain and the United States, respectively.
The Birth of Biedermeier
Biedermeier, which developed in Austria and Germany between 1815 and 1848, represents a much more domestic take on Empire style. As a middle class emerged out of the poverty left by Napoleon’s sieges in the region, so did the need for a comfortable approach to furniture design to suit the increasingly prevalent social space of the drawing room.
The style represented a retreat to the interiority of private family life; governmental crackdowns on activism meant that political talk moved home from the meeting houses and cafes. Architecture, in turn, took on a kind of defensive posture with residential buildings being increasingly drawn back from the street.
While Empire-style furniture was conceived to decorate courts and palaces and inflected with the appropriate pomp and majesty, Biedermeier took its motifs and simplified them. Elaborate baroque flourishes were replaced with clean, simple lines. Instead of imported woods like mahogany and ebony, furniture makers used timber that could be found locally, like cherry and pearwood, sometimes using stains or black lacquer to make it resemble more expensive materials.
It’s no coincidence that Biedermeier style developed in concert with the collapse of the First French Empire and the solidification of nation-states across Europe, since it represents a taming of Empire style. It translates the grand royal themes of the 18th century into those of the 19th century’s democratic renaissance.
The middle of the 19th century saw significant German migration to the United States, and a further simplification of what still remained of Empire-style flourishes, as German cabinet makers sought to match the more modest tastes of clients in Philadelphia and other American cities.
Back in Europe, the classic lines and right angles of the Biedermeier style eventually gave way to a renaissance of curves and scroll motifs as a neo-Rococo movement developed in Vienna in the 1840s. This Rococo revival style was also imported to the United States by German woodworkers, and by 1850 Biedermeier mostly disappeared.
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