The Witty Influence of Vienna's Biedermeier Style

WHAT, or who is Biedermeier? A fair enough question, and an especially relevant one these days. In German the word breaks down into two parts, ``Bieder,'' which means upright and commonplace, and ``Meier,'' which is one of the most ubiquitous last names in this part of the world. ``Honest-John''? ``Plain-Jane''? Supply the English equivalent of your choice. The term first came into use in 1855, when it was applied as a pejorative adjective to the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie in Austria and Germany during the years from 1815 to 1848. Since then it has been associated with the fashion, furniture, and painting of that culture. And, like most names which classify 30-some years under one hat, and label them a ``period'' with a capital ``P,'' the catch-phrase Biedermeier is fine for broad speech, but begs closer examination. In the arts, as well as politically, a number of different influences and trends were simultaneously at work.

From the 1770s to the early 1800s, Classicism set the tone for the fine and applied arts in Europe. The flamboyant and asymmetrical shapes of the Baroque gave way to elements and values taken from Greek classical art - strict order, right angles, and geometric shapes.

The social-political picture, in 1815, was no less variable: Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy had lost some lands and gained others, stretching north through Bohemia to Prague, east through Galizia to the Russian border, and south through the Moldau. Vienna was Europe's third-largest city (238,000 inhabitants). Maria Theresa had been dead for 35 years, followed by a succession of short-reigned emperors, notable among them her son, Joseph, the reformer.

Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin were the contemporary composers. Buechner, von Kleist, von Eichendorff, and Heine - the Romantic authors - dominated the literary scene. The industrial revolution (as well as the people's revolution) was in motion. The first railway and the electric telegraph had already made history. And Empire furniture, an offshoot of Classicism, was ``in.''

Empire gave Biedermeier its first impulse. In fact, a good number of early ``Biedermeier'' pieces are simply Empire knockoffs, produced by adding trendy pieces of gilt trim to, and staining, older furniture. The look of the more expensive French and English products was desired, and, to a certain degree, achieved. But Biedermeier only really showed new growth when designers began to consider the taste of the bourgeois consumer. From then on, a parallel development took place: the representational, official style remained Empire, and a new, more personal, private taste manifested itself - Biedermeier.

W.C.W. Blumenbach, who issued an early publication on Viennese taste in 1825, wrote: ``When the French papers show drawings of cabinetry overloaded with decoration, and therefore quite high-priced, what they lack is furniture free from superfluous embellishments - furniture that sets itself apart by its simplicity, good proportion, grace, and stability, and which, for these reasons, is ideal for use by the middle class, as well as for the upper classes.''

One design firm, that of Josef Danhauser and his son, soon made a name for itself by producing highly original and amusing furnishings. For some people, Danhauser is Biedermeier. By means of a precocious marketing strategy - a detailed catalog offering ``complete treatments'' for rooms - Danhauser sold to the aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike. The products ranged from canapes to spittoons, writing desks to birdcages.

From straightforward elegance to wild eccentricity, Danhauser offered it all. His designs are playful, fantastic, and yet always retain a natural quality that results from an extreme clarity of vision, for their extravagance nonetheless coexists with their sense of function. Honest. Upright. Plain. Straightforward. Elegant. Biedermeier.

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