Biedermeier Period: Furniture & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Arts are often defined by the needs of politically active elites, but every now and then this changes. In this lesson, we'll examine furniture and design made for a different lifestyle.

The Biedermeier Period

When things feel uncertain, sometimes the best thing you can do is to eat some comfort food. But what do you do if your entire society feels uncertain? How about buying some comfort furniture and designing an artistic movement around it? That could work.

From 1815-1848, Northern European arts changed, particularly within Germany and Austria. We call this the Biedermeier period, which serves as something of a transition between the Neoclassical and Romantic periods of art in this region. The early 19th century saw a lot of change for Northern Europe, and not all of that change was easy to handle. But, there's nothing like a good chair to make you feel better.

History and Biedermeier Arts

The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. It was the first calm that Europe had had since the outbreak of the French Revolution over twenty years prior, and the European people needed a break. They backed away from reform movements and liberal ideas about constitutions and rights of the people, and a new wave of increasingly oppressive governments swept across the continent.

Life in the Biedermeier period was focused on private and domestic pursuits

For the middle class of Germany and Austria, there were reasons to be nervous. The middle class had only relatively recently become a large, stable part of Germany's new industrial and urban society. They were still prospering, but were uncertain about the future. At the same time, greater censorship and oppression encouraged them to become less active in politics, and they looked to private life for comfort.

Of course, as Northern European societies changed, so did the arts. Arts in this time focused on the pleasures of middle-class, private life. Paintings showed people writing letters in their studies, embroidering around the fireplace, playing the piano with friends, or sitting in the living room with the family. Later critics would derogatorily call this Biedermeier art, named for Papa Biedermeier. So, who was this- a great painter? A famous composer? Papa Biedermeier was a fictional character, a personification of content, middle-class comfort who appeared occasionally in the satirical magazine Munich Fliegende Blätter. We can think of him somewhat like the Homer Simpson of 19th-century Germany.

In Biedermeier Germany, there was even an entire genre of painting focused around scenes of domestic interiors

Biedermeier Furniture and Design

Biedermeier arts had a comforting appeal to them, largely as a way to reassure the middle class that their wealth and newfound role in urban society was secure. Since life was becoming more focused on the home, this meant that some of the most important forms of Biedermeier art were in furniture and décor.

Biedermeier furniture, like this couch, was a simplified and streamlined variation on the Empire and Directoire styles

Prior to the Biedermeier period, Europe had been dominated by the elitist and regal Empire and Directoire styles of design. Both of these were variations of Neoclassical design, defined strong geometric proportions, symmetry, and Greco-Roman motifs. However, they were also opulent, pretentious, and imperial. These were the styles of Napoleon. They didn't quite fit in a comfortable, middle-class home.

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