Since seeing Paola Saracino Fendi’s Upper East Side pad, fabulously decorated by British firm Campbell-Rey, I can’t stop thinking about her dining chairs. A collection of eight mismatched Biedermeier beauties, seats reupholstered in colorful Lelièvre corduroys, surround a sleek 1980s table by Paul Mayen. They were fun—with their scrolling, decorative backrests—but also somewhat serious with crisp, clean-cut lines.
In Germany and Austria between 1815 and 1850, when the seats were likely made, this style represented the peak of modernity. The Napoleonic wars had ended and a burgeoning middle class emerged, with the time and money to furnish their homes. A new style of furniture was created to suit their needs: streamlined versions of more opulent Empire furniture characterized by strong lines, warm local woods like walnut, pear, and cherry, and simplified shapes—though notably, not totally stripped of ornament. Hallmarks include flared arms and legs or curlique seat backs. In Biedermeier: Art and Culture in Central Europe 1815-1848, authors Radim Vondracek, Claudia Terenzi, and Jiri Rak call it “the undisputed point of breakdown between Classicism and Modernism,” both for that clean, modern look and the fact that—for the first time—production was based on standard models.
The origins of its moniker (only given decades later) can be found in the German words bieder—plain, unpretentious, and inoffensive—and Biedermann, an honest, upright citizen without intellectual ambition. Despite that rather disparaging name, Biedermier forms would lay the groundwork for much of modern furniture design to come: Thonet’s iconic bistro chair has roots in a Biedermeier model; as do many pieces of Wiener Werkstatte-era furniture, which would emerge soon after.