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Biedermeier and Empire

Empire room © SKB, Photo: Edgar Knaack
The Imperial Furniture Collection owns one of the most comprehensive collections of furniture from the Biedermeier period. A further highlight, the so-called “Biedermeierkojen” or Biedermeier “cabinets”, which show interiors in their overall design, from then until now.

Emperor Franz II (I) reigned at a time of upheaval, unrest and radical change. The Napoleonic wars, the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, the political restructuring of Europe, emerging nationalism, Metternich’s repressive policies, the incipient industrial revolution, the change from a feudal to a civil society – all this formed the highly explosive mixture that eventually erupted in the revolution  of 1848/49.

Interior design and furnishings also underwent significant stylistic changes. Napoleon’s expansion of power was accompanied by the dissemination across large parts of Europe of the stately Empire style created in his honour which drew on Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquity. It was taken up in the apartments of the Viennese nobility and wealthy middle classes. 

However, at the court of Emperor Franz, the Corsican’s main adversary, this style was only adopted in the apartments of his third and fourth wives. Alongside the neoclassical Empire style a related, but simpler and above all more homely furnishing style developed, which much later on, around the turn of the twentieth century, began to be referred to as ‘Biedermeier’.

For many years it was regarded as an authentically middle-class style of living and furnishing, born out of the desire of many people to retreat from the uncertainty of the times into a domestic idyll. However, it seems in fact to have originated among royalty and nobility, as a style conceived for the less formal private apartments in their stately residences. Today Biedermeier is commonly associated with adjectives such as ‘small-scale’, ‘cramped’, ‘pink-striped’ and ‘sprigged’. This is quite simply wrong. What was popular at the time was elegantly shaped seating, precious timbers, wallpapers with large-scale patterns and bold colours – quite different to the received staid and conformist image erroneously associated with the era.

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