More than a century before the Eameses created their simple, honest furniture designed to appeal to the everyman, a style of furnishings emerged in Germany, one whose simplicity, visual lightness, and playful geometries were a herald of things to come. Biedermeier is notable for being the first decorative movement that was created by and for the middle class, and even today, after two centuries, these pieces still feel surprisingly fresh and modern.
The Biedermeyer style emerged around 1815, a time when Germany was in a bit of an economic slump following the Napoleonic wars, but also a time when the middle class was starting to emerge as a significant division of society, one with real buying power. Besides being cash-strapped, it was also a conservative era, one where emphasis was placed on enjoying simpler pursuits, like writing letters or having small gatherings at home. It's no surprise, then, that the middle class rejected the opulent Empire style, then all the rage in France, for one much more simple, relaxed and informal.
Although it kept some of the classical forms, Biedermeier rejected the dark ebony and mahogany so common in Empire furniture for lighter woods, like walnut, pear and cherry. Conveniently, these woods occurred naturally in Germany and didn't have to be shipped, which made the furniture more affordable. While Empire style was formal, impressive, gold accented and highly ornamented, Biedermeier designers embraced a more natural, relaxed look. Common features of the style are curves, playful geometric shapes and an emphasis on the grain of the wood, as opposed to any kind of applied ornamentation.
The flat, unadorned planes, visual delicacy and playful geometries of Biedermeier pieces contribute to them feeling especially modern. There are definitely echoes of the style in later movements, like Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Some Biedermeier pieces, especially the ones that work the contrast between light woods and dark accents, would be quite at home in an Art Deco interior (with the classic influences toned down perhaps a bit).
The name "Biedermeier" was originally meant as a mocking one. Two writers, Adolf Kussmaul and Ludwig Eichrodt, created a character they called "Gottlieb Biedermeier", under whose name they published many satirical poems. Biedermeier was comfortably middle-class, a good citizen and without many intellectual ambitions—exactly the sort of person Kussmaul and Eichrodt found ridiculous. The same elites who found the new bourgeois absurd apparently also found their furniture a bit silly, so they applied the name to the style, and it stuck. Ironically, Gottlieb has been forgotten, while Biedermeier is a perennially loved style of furniture—although hardly affordable to the middle class.
Even if you're not planning on bringing any Biedermeier furniture home, it's a fun little era to visit. And hey, if there's ever a Beidermeier revival, you can say you heard about it here first.