The Completed Secretary Desk
The spread of this form to the various countries occurred during the early part of the 19th century in what is known as the Empire period in France. As these designs were taken in by the cabinetmakers of the various countries, the form was incorporated and vernacular designs using local woods were created. This was the case in northern Europe as well as in America, where the style is known as American Empire, or Late Classical.
In northern Europe, the style came to be known as Biedermeier. The Biedermeier period refers to the time period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Revolution of Germany in 1848. This time saw the rise of the middle class in Germany and Austria and with it a demand for furnishings that were contemporary, stylish, and affordable. A style that, like other neoclassical forms was new and independent of the furnishings that came before.
the name "Biedermeier" comes form an amalgamation of two satirical characters from poetry by Josef Viktor von Scheffel. Their names were Biedermann and Bummelmaier. The publisher Ludwig Eichrodt combined the names to make "Biedermaier" and later "Beidermeier". This name later came to characterize the art and furnishings centered in Germany during the first half of the 19th century. It is important to recognize this as an independent style, and not simply a sub-genre of the French Empire. Once investigated, it is clear to see that Beidermeier is a distinct style with unique characteristics and fundamental differences from the earlier Empire style.
After looking at many examples of Biedermeier secretary desks, I believe that this particular desk originated in Austria. The closest examples that I could find which echoed the style and ornamental features of this piece seem to have come from Austria. That being said, I saw many examples that while differing in design, used similar woods.These examples seemed to hail from Northern Germany.
One of the hardest parts of identifying the origin of these pieces is that there is an enormous variety of designs and design elements employed in the making of these desks. A quick search of Google images for Biedermeier desks will show what I mean! One of the reasons for this diversity in design was that these desks served as a signature piece for cabinetmakers and they would put all they had into their design and construction. This is because the Secretaire figured prominently into the German household. It served as a place to store and lock valuables but also as an imposing statement in the decoration of the room. In most cases, this would be the largest piece in the room, if not the household. To add to that, the tiered top of the desk was used as a place to display busts or flowers. In short, this was a piece that was made to be seen and the cabinetmaker used this fact as a way of displaying his craft.
Now to the desk itself. The outer surfaces of the desk are veneered entirely out of flame Birch which was arranged in repeating bookmatched patterns. The edges of the front of the desk had a 3/4 column of turned flame Birch attached from top to bottom.
The desk was arranged with one long drawer at the top. Beneath this was the drop front which serves as a door as well as a writing surface. The interior of this large compartment houses several smaller drawers which are veneered with crotch Mahogany. The pulls on all of these drawers are turned Ivory.
Beneath the desk compartment are three additional long drawers, which are graduated. An interesting feature of these desks is that while the drawers are graduated, they are mixed and do not have an order, like smallest at the top and deepest at the bottom. What purpose this may have served is a mystery to me, but perhaps it was a style feature. It seems to be fairly consistent in Biedermeier desks.
The desk was beautifully constructed using tight hand cut joinery. The secondary wood that the case was made of is Pine and the piece shows no sign of having been made with machinery. Below are a few photos of the desk as it came to the shop.
Before getting into the repairs, I will share what we did discover about the desk while working on it. The desk was signed by the cabinetmaker, whose last name was MÜLLER. The handwriting of this signature matches the numbers written on the underside of the compartment drawers. This appears to be the earliest handwritting on the piece. Below is a photo of the signature.
One other find was this wonderful drawing on one of the supports for the compartment drawers. Perhaps this is a self portrait of Müller or Martell. Whoever drew it, it was a happy discovery indeed!
( yes, those are zip ties holding the columns in place!).