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The Man Who Loves Chairs: A Talk with a Curator

By Michael HueyThe author is a graduate student in German literature at the University of Vienna, and works part time as a volunteer at the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts. / January 17, 1990



SNOW, wind, darkness. It's Vienna's first blizzard of the season, and I am out in it with Dr. Christian Witt-D"orring, a curator at the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts. In this city he has a reputation as nothing short of Mr. Biedermeier Furniture Himself - which is why I've asked him to show me the warehouse where undisplayed pieces from the museum are kept, and to respond to a few questions. At length we approach a gray, 19th-century, four-story building, once used for storing stage sets. We enter, and Christian Witt-D"orring tells me to stand where I am until he turns off the alarm. He then fumbles for the light. When it comes on, I see that we're in an attic-like room surrounded by cabinets, chests, benches, and literally hundreds of chairs. ``I love chairs,'' he tells me, somewhat self-consciously. I launch into my questions:

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For starters, why chairs?

Because they give the most concentrated information about a specific time. Besides, each one is like a piece of sculpture. A chair is the most difficult piece of furniture to design. It has to function - so that you sit well, but the form must remain true. You can't hide anything. Chairs are almost like human beings. They reach a sort of unity with a person when he sits down. Especially Biedermeier chairs. Each has its own expression.

When you look at a chair, what criteria do you use to judge it? I've often heard you say something is ``ugly'' or ``witty.'' What quality are you looking for?

Self-evidence. Because if something is self-evident, it doesn't produce any pressure on you, it doesn't condition you. You can feel free from fashion. It is basic qualities made manifest. And through this development of a basic quality you become somehow independent of matter. Biedermeier is about material culture: the way a substance is used, the importance of a surface, and the way very expensive and less expensive materials are differentiated.

I've heard it said that Biedermeier is the kind of furniture one's grandmother had. What images does the term Biedermeier conjure up for the German speaker?

Comfort and coziness. But it's a term that's changing today. Biedermeier is the culture that, for most people, [is in] the past, and yet is still within reach, still documented. The 18th century is hard for the individual to grasp, culturally speaking. Suddenly in the 19th century you have this explosion of shapes and possibilities with Biedermeier. A lot begins with Biedermeier.

Where does one see Biedermeier influence in today's design?

Through this whole Post-Modern movement, creative people have been looking for the sources of modernism. They examined Vienna in 1900, and if you look closely at Vienna in 1900, you necessarily have to [examine] Biedermeier. Today we are once again very conscious of materials and the use of architectural forms - but, of course, [the use of architectural elements is] not just Biedermeier, it's neoclassical. Biedermeier is, after all, a neoclassical style. Other variables that play a role in the Post-Modern are humor and subjectivity - the very personal characteristics that are so important in Biedermeier furniture.

What cultural purpose is furniture - particularly Biedermeier - asked to serve, and how is it accomplished through design?

The questions are: ``Who are the customers? Does the furniture look different for different customers? Are they expensive or cheap things?'' I think those are all very new questions in cultural history that are related specifically to the Biedermeier period. That doesn't seem very philosophical. Does it always come down to the fact that furniture has a price?

Yes, I think so. There's no philosophy. It's very basic. For example, the many different domestic woods that were used were just economic necessity because [Austria was] cut off from foreign markets by the continental blockade. [Furniture makers] had to convince the customer that domestic wood had aesthetic value. And then the customer got what he wanted: a cheap product with the look of an expensive one.

What was happening to the quality of production in the early 19th century?

I think it increased, specifically in [the area of] design. That generation harvested the fruit of what was sown in the late 18th century - drawing instruction for craftsmen and so forth. Because of this education the craftsmen were at home with the newest international design fashions. They were comfortable with proper proportions, and if you are confident in these areas, then you have a solid basis. Then you can add your own creativity.

This had as its result the very personal and witty Viennese products. As far as craftsmanship goes, they were excellent. After about 1810 or 1815, the quality of craftsmanship in Vienna experienced an enormous rise.

What sort of label does Biedermeier have in the United States?

-The term-

is out of context. It gets more an avant-garde label. So far, what the American customer has seen in Biedermeier is mostly the provincial, cheap stuff.

There's a lot of Biedermeier in the US.

Yes, it left [Europe] in the hands of emigrants. And because of the age of these people, these things are suddenly coming onto the market. This is not being crass, these are the facts. It's not just chance that Biedermeier is coming into consciousness now. Everything is related. We did an exhibition in London 10 years ago, and we couldn't even use Biedermeier in the title. We had to say ``Vienna in the Age of Schubert,'' subtitled: ``The Biedermeier Interior.'' And it was not a success.