Empire Style in Germany & Austria: Biedermeier Style Tables (1815-1830)
Sometimes playful, and always beautifully veneered, this is the story of Austrian and German Biedermeier tables. Browse Biedermeier style at One Kings Lane and inject this unique style into your own decor!
Biedermeier is a fascinating subset in furniture history, and among the most recognizable. Covered top to bottom in spectacular veneers, and featuring a few interesting details (some more odd than others), it was a short-lived period that marked some important political tides.
In Austria and Germany, an educated middle class flourished, and a style developed in a fresh void left by their rejection of fanciful Empire style furniture, and formal Louis XVI style. Much like other movements, Biedermeier defined a people and their priorities: it was a backlash. And armed with two guiding principles—functionality, and the love of flat, veneered planes—a unique style developed.
In the wake of the fall of the Napoleon Empire (and, Empire style), England prospered and grew fond of Victorian styles, while much of Austria and Germany were left impoverished and deprived. They turned to “quiet pleasures”—intellectual pursuits that everyone could enjoy. With life revolving around the living room—“the family circle”—it can be said that “the table played a greater part in the Biedermeier period than ever before.”
Types of Biedermeier Style Tables
In the main living room, little “islands of activity” occurred, with a table for each. Every living room had a large, round table. Unlike more formal styles, the Biedermeier table wasn’t in the center of the room; it was usually moved into a corner to make use of space, and to feel cozy. This primary table often had a deep apron, capable of having drawers, and sat upon a robust central column.
Because flat, veneered surfaces were preferred to any carving, this support was where most decorative treatment lived. Either baluster style, tripod, or with four curved feet, it featured cylindrical columns, curved dolphins or swans, or gilded lion’s paw feet. Some of the dolphin tables are among the most celebrated Biedermeier antiques—although, in their own time, inspired a little criticism.
The sofa was central to Biedermeier life (Read more about Biedermeier sofas here), being such a social time, so sofa tables were present in almost every household. With extendable flaps, making it large enough to dine at, the Biedermeier sofa table most often featured four curved legs and stretchers, or a stretcher shelf. The veneered top was rich and polished, often with contrasting inlay borders or starburst designs.
Middle class housewives in Germany and Austria had a new sort of social status—not the political and educational pursuits of men, but definitely not the frivolous preoccupations of court life that would now seem totally foreign. Instead, they became adept at almost every kind of hobby and craft, and lots of little tables reflected this. Mini work-tables designed to hold needlework were some of the most incredible creations of the period, with smooth, veneered spheres set atop three legs that opened up to reveal tiny pigeon holes, built-in pin-cushions, and compartments for different colors of thread. These globe-like tables were in fact so beautifully made, their craftsmanship has been compared to that of violins.
Console tables, on the other hand—long popular in houses of the 18th century—didn’t have a place in the Biedermeier home. Because furniture was primarily made to be moveable and multipurpose, the idea of the console—that it lent itself to a fixed position in the house—didn’t jive with the priorities of Biedermeier style.
The Elements of Biedermeier Style Tables
It’s been said that Biedermeier is “a river fed by three springs: Empire, Louis XVI, and England.”4 You can certainly see this in the tables. And while Biedermeier draws inspiration from all of these styles, it at times contrasts sharply with them, and has a seriously unique identity that’s all its own.
Biedermeier style tables are defined by a few key elements:
“Honoring” the grain of the wood. Planks and veneers were deftly applied. Veneers were a very economical means of using expensive, beautifully grained wood—definitely not the cheap, veneer-on-plywood of the 20th century that gave the term a bad rap. With this priority—showing off the grain with veneer—all of the surfaces are totally flat. Tables, especially, gave craftsmen ample opportunity to show off explosive panels of veneer in decorative geometric forms. Walnut was a popular choice, as were pear wood and cherry wood. Mahogany was noticeably absent, mostly given its association with Empire style, but also because it was expensive, was heavier, and had a less decorative grain.
Decorative shapes were achieved using different shades of brightly colored wood (and marquetry, but never in excess): the rhombus, diamond, circle and star were all popular, and set Biedermeier pieces apart. Other common motifs were lion paws (a carry-over from Empire style), acanthus leaves, shells and scallops, cyma curves, flowers, rays and stars, tendrils, and the lyre.
1. [Himmelheber, Georg. (1974) Biedermeier Furniture. London, UK: Faber and Faber.]↩