Biedermeier Is Back

Mention the word Biedermeier to the proverbial man on the street, and be prepared for a quizzical look. “Peter Meyer?” he might ask with narrowed eyes. But while relatively obscure, this style of furniture and decorative arts has influenced generations of designers who have responded to its clean lines and architec­tural qualities.

Over the past year, Biedermeier has been enjoying another warm em­brace in the form of a major exhibition, renewed attention from art his­tor­ians and auction houses, and even the launch of new fabric designs ­inspired by the era’s distinctive use of patterns and colors. Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity—which originated at the Milwaukee Art Museum and is currently at the Albertina, in Vienna—not only presents a significant reassessment of the origins of the style but has also sparked debate over whether its aesthetic expressed a vision of the future or just a familiar nineteenth-century desire to revive the ideals of the classical world.

Biedermeier, as the style (and period) came to be known only later, began around 1815 and ended unceremoniously in about 1830. It took hold in Germany, Austria, and Denmark after the Napoleonic Wars, ­largely in reaction to the excesses of the French-influenced Empire era that preceded it. Gone were the over-the-top rococo embellishments of costly showroom pieces and ostentatious royal salons; in their place were functional everyday objects and domestic spaces stripped of gildings, marbles, carvings, appliqués, and other elaborate ornamentation. The ethos was one of simple, smooth, utilitarian forms designed for private liv-­ing, and it was this unpretentious quality that led Biedermeier to be labeled, often derisively, as bourgeois.

Architect Michael Graves has been an avid collector of Biedermeier furniture since the 1970s and sees elements of the genre in his own work. “Like me, it took risks and made some things a little too deep or a little too wide, but never with too much decoration,” he says. “That made it almost what one might call ‘farmer furniture.’ It’s everybody furniture, just like Volkswagen is Everyman’s car.” Laurie Winters, curator of earlier European art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, names several other designers whose work suggests Biedermeier’s broad influence: Josef Hoffman, Otto Wagner, Eero Saarinen, and Le Corbusier. “The ­period’s simplicity of line and emphasis on geometric form really do anticipate principles of the early twentieth century,” she says.

But the exact nature and import of Biedermeier are still being ­contested. Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, cautions, for instance, against the claim that the period was a precursor to Modernism, suggesting that it might actually have been drawing inspiration from pared-down styles of the past, much as the neoclassical movement did. “It’s a very paradoxical and problematic thing,” he says, “this idea that so-called Biedermeier furniture is proto-Modern instead of some advanced interpretation of getting back to the simplicity of noble Greek ­culture.”

Historical research is also challenging the conventional notion of Biedermeier as furniture and decoration for ­everyday—if wealthy—domestic life. The aesthetic movement toward spareness began not with the bourgeoisie, Winters says, but with well-known cabinetmakers designing connoisseur pieces for the royal households of Vienna. “It evolved initially from the court,” the catalog for the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit argues, “and thereafter spread into more broad-based usage among the new moneyed social ­classes.”

Whatever Biedermeier’s origins and influence, its seemingly Modern lines suit the contemporary sensibility well—even if many people have never heard of it. “I would have this in my house today,” says Bonnie Momsen Brill, vice president of marketing at the textile manufacturer Architex, which has teamed up with the Milwaukee Art Museum to produce Biedermeier-inspired upholstery and draperies. “Where has this been? Why haven’t I noticed it?”

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