Roentgens’ Luxury Furniture: Status Symbol of the Nobility in 18th Century Europe

12 September 2016

Extraordinary Roentgen furniture is combination of refined marquetry and mechanical ingenuity, and excellent example of 18th century luxury art

The ending years of the seventeenth century witnessed the meteoric appearance of the noble Roentgen furniture, made by two cabinet makers who revolutionized furniture design in Europe.

Abraham Roentgen (1711-93) and his son David (1743-1807) were the greatest cabinetmakers in Europe in the eighteenth century.

Their workshop in Germany, produced furniture for the European elite who adored their perfect mechanical designs mixed with lavish art.

It’s worth mentioning that the great German writer and poet Goethe, mentions David Roentgen in Wilhelm Meister and calls his cabinets ‘palaces in fairyland’.

Roentgen furniture - Berlin Secretary Cabinet
$1.5 million ‘Berlin Secretary Cabinet’ by David Roentgen, 1786, is one of the most expensive pieces of furniture in the world today.
Currently at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin | Image source: metmuseum.org

In 2012 the Extravagant Inventions exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, displayed many of the stunning pieces of Roentgen furniture. It featured Roentgen furniture from different international museums and royal collections, as well as works from the museum’s own holdings.

Roentgen furniture - Commode à vantaux
Commode à vantaux by David Roentgen, 1775-79 | Image source: metmuseum.org

In fact, Roentgen furniture started a new chapter in the history of furniture design. That is to say the furniture’s unique designs, together with the use of intriguing mechanical devices, transformed the whole European furniture industry.

Roentgen furniture - The Apollo Bureau
The Apollo Bureau, the Hermitage Museum Russia | Image source: samsung.com

A Work of Grandeur, Delicacy and Innovation

Roentgen furniture was famous for its refined wood works and clever designs. In other words, the final products were brilliant and novel. The tables, desks and cabinets featured not only complex locking systems, but also impressive gadgetry.

Roentgen furniture boasted plenty of design feats. For instance, furniture doors would magically fling open to reveal hidden drawers, music boxes, and secret compartments. Eventually, these exotic and detailed inventions became a favored status symbol for the nobility throughout Europe.

One typical example of the stunning work of the Roentgens, is a writing desk. The desk is undoubtedly the greatest showpiece ever made by Abraham Roentgen. It’s on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Roentgen furniture - Writing Desk Abraham Roentgen
Writing Desk (Closed) 1758-60, Abraham Roentgen, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam | Image source: rijksmuseum.nl

When closed, this object displays a superb marquetry on the outside surfaces. In order to add fine details to the design, Abraham used a variety of techniques such as polishing, staining, and hot sand shading.

Strangely enough, at the turn of a single key, the desk’s cover opens to reveal a multitude of drawers, writing panels and hidden boxes.

Roentgen furniture - Writing Desk Abraham Roentgen
Writing Desk (Opened) 1758-60, Abraham Roentgen, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam | Image source: rijksmuseum.nl

The entire process of unfolding the desk is controlled by a minutely designed mechanical system. The system includes hidden springs, lead weights, locks and so many other parts. Not to mention the fact that this is just one of the several desks made in this way!

Roetngen furniture - Dressing Table
The Roentgens’ Dressing Table, 1789, Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt | Image source: metmuseum.org

Masterpieces of Marquetry

Roentgen furniture is excellent instance of trompe l’oeil marquetry, where pieces are veneered with wood particles to create the desired pictures. They were often decorated in the style of chinoiserie, a European imitation of Chinese artistic design.

Roentgen furniture - Rolltop desk David Roentgen
Rolltop desk by David Roentgen, 1776-79 | Image source: metmuseum.org
Roentgen furniture - Chinoiserie
The stunning Chinoiserie marquetry on the Rolltop desk in the above picture | Image source: metmuseum.org
Roentgen furniture - The Magnanimity of Scipio
The Magnanimity of Scipio, 1779, made in Germany for Charles of Lorraine
Probably The most impressive marquetry panel of all time | Image credit: MAK , Museum for Applied Arts , Vienna

A Status Symbol of the Aristocrats

In spite of being much more famous than Abraham, David actually learned the skills and styles of furniture making from his father. Moreover, David roentgen proved to be a successful salesman who turned his father’s national business into an international firm.

Due to his superior craftsmanship and business instinct, Roentgen furniture became well-known throughout the ruling houses of 18th-century Europe.

Roentgen furniture - Rolltop Desk
Rolltop Desk, Abraham & David Roentgen, 1770-74
Made for Maria Antonia, Princess of Bavaria | Image source: metmuseum.org
Roentgen furniture - Wolderdorff commode
Wolderdorff commode by Abraham Roentgen, 1755
Made for German Prince Johann Philipp von Walderdorf | Image source: metmuseum.org

Roentgen furniture added a superb ambiance to the classically decorated rooms of the 18th century.

Roentgen furniture - Chatsworth House
Furniture by David Roentgen including a mahogany cylinder bureau, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, UK | Image Source: 1stdibs.com
Roentgen furniture
Table by David Roentgen, 1780-90, Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, France | Image source: wikipedia.org

Nonetheless, Roentgen furniture business had a big collapse due to the French Revolution. First, David Roentgen lost more than half of his Neuwied workshop. Furthermore, the French Revolution ruined the market for all luxury goods. By 1801, he had shut down his workshops because of war.

It might be nearly impossible to reach such high levels of woodwork today. However, the Roentgen legacy surely lives on in the memory.