The Viennese Biedermeier

The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 politically realigned Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. The main goal was to resize the nations within Europe creating a balance of power and, it was hoped, a lasting peace. Some countries, such as France, lost large areas of land while other, such as Austria, gained new territories. Metternich, Austria’s foreign minister, emerged as Europe leading statesman. After the chaos and destruction of the Napoleonic wars Metternich implemented a policy of strict censorship across the German principalities. Artisans restricted in the pubic sphere and with few resources available to them due to the previous war years turned inward. Re-acquainting themselves with local hardwoods and the provision of household furniture they developed new styles in a flowing form that would become know as the Biedermeier. This was particularly developed in Vienna which quickly became a cultural centre in addition to the political centre which developed around Metternich.
The Napoleonic wars has displaced many people and artisans from across Europe now met in cities like Vienna and exchanged ideas and created new styles. The Congress in 1814 had created a need for new furniture for the visiting delegates. The Empire style was out of fashion rejected because of its association with Napoleon and local hardwood was the main material that was easily available. Furniture was created that was deceptively simple yet elegant in design with long serpentine curves and polished wood with no gilt and little carving. What started from necessity quickly caught on and more and more designs were developed. New techniques were employed to bring out natural features in the wood and experimentation in different varnishes and resins abounded.
The new style gained support across society with the newly confident bourgeoisie and the nobility equally embracing the sinuous chairs and tables. Emperor Joseph I also gave the work his seal of approval and founded a technical college to train artisans in the furniture making craft. By 1825, there were 950 trained cabinetmakers in Vienna. Master craftsmen had to pass an examination at the Akademie der bildenden Künste (the Academy of Fine Arts).
By 1830 the Biedermeier movement had run its course and in 1848 the series of popular revolutions swept across Europe. The artisans of Vienna retreated into their workshops while Viennese culture would re-emerge in the 1860s with architects to the fore. However, the graceful curves and polished wood of the Biedermeier furniture continues to delight today with its timeless elegance.


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