Feat of Form in Viennese Furniture Design

May 9 2012, 2:28pm

Carlton Hobbs LLC.   This secretaire is a rare example of the fine Austrian cabinetwork made during the first half of the 19th century. Secretaires were considered the most important type of furniture, commissioned not only for their utilitarian function, but also as conversation pieces that reflected the refinement, status, and and taste of the owner. These pieces were also the most intricately designed and challenging furniture items a cabinetmaker could produce, showcasing his skillfulness, and securing his professional reputation. By the 1820s, demand for this progressive form of writing desk had begun to wane, making the present secretaire a rare ovoid example from a brief, but exceptional, period in central European furniture design.     The secretaire, open. Carlton Hobbs LLC.   Secretaires of ovoid design, sometimes called lyra sekretär, were the most elaborate type. The ovoid body is a technical and artistic challenge, as the drawers must follow the curve of the body exactly. Each aspect, down to the backboards, is expertly paneled and molded. Both hard and soft woods were used, and were selected to create a contrast between light areas and dark borders.1 Although French neoclassical influence is discernible, these secretaires remain distinctly Viennese in design, using innovative “Ersatz decorative techniques [such as] substituting bronze ornaments with carved wooden ornament, and marquetry with penwork; typical of Viennese pieces of the period.”2   Detail of penwork.   A penwork representation of a fruit basket centers the fall of the present secretaire, symbolizing abundance and charity, sentiments which are echoed in the overturned carved giltwood cornucopiae conforming to each side of the secretaire. Two stepped drawers surmount the desk, three are contained in the body and a long single drawer is contained in the base, all of which have complementary foliate gilt-bronze escutcheons.   Detail of interior.   While the body of the secretaire itself is accomplished, the interior is similarly impressive. The intricate architectural design includes a miniature staircase, colonnades and parquet floors, reflected in mirrored panels. Both the staircase and faux brick walls surrounding it slide out to reveal concealed drawers. “Furnished with an unprecedented number of sophisticated secret drawers, which satisfied the need for security as well as a certain playful urge, the writing cabinet exemplified the new desire for privacy [in 19th century Vienna].”3   Figure 1: A drawing of 1814 by Ladislaus Körösi depicts a similar secretiare of ovoid form with decorative upright cornucopiae and an architectural interior.   Cabinetmakers’ drawings of Viennese lyre secretaires, executed either as part of the curriculum in trade schools or as a record of a completed masterpiece, provide a record of the innovative designs for this type of furniture, and aid in dating these models. A drawing of 1814 by Ladislaus Körösi, today in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, depicts a similar secretiare of ovoid form with decorative upright cornucopiae and an architectural interior (figure 1).   Figure 2: Viennese secretaire closely related to the present piece is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.   Another Viennese secretaire closely related to the present piece is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (figure 2). Not only is the Art Institute example ebonized, with stepped drawers and cornucopia forms flanking the sides, but its  proportions are nearly identical to those of the present piece.   Figure 3: secretaire of ovoid form, circa 1810, formerly in the collection of Roberto Polo.   At their most advanced, Viennese prototypes such as the present secretaire may be considered as some of the most daringly experimental and radical creations in the history of furniture design. Their complex geometry was as new and prescient  as the shockingly original late string quartets Beethoven was to compose in Vienna at a similar time as the creation of the present secretaire. Perhaps the most representative item of Viennese furniture design with a predictive quality is another secretaire of ovoid form, circa 1810, formerly in the collection of Roberto Polo (figure 3). Even by Viennese standards, this piece, made in the first years of the 19th century, startles by its appearance of modernity.   The secretaire in situ in Carlton Hobbs LLC's booth at the AADLA Spring Show