Master of the Biedermeier period: Carl Spitzweg (1808 - 1885), "The Painter in the Garden", c. 1860, oil paint on cardboard

The New Biedermeier

In these days of Covid cocooning and the forced introspection this brings with it we live-stream distant travel destinations and cultivate a taste for home improvements. A look at Germany’s new fascination with furnishings.
by Oliver Herwig | 1/13/2021

Every crisis has its winners and the same is equally true of Covid – the pandemic has been a boon to streaming providers, online retailers, and DIY stores. People are now investing much of those funds, that were in previous years set aside for trips to distant climes, spur-of-the-moment city breaks, short vacations with a weekend bag over one shoulder, somewhere completely different, namely in their own four walls. They have put up wallpaper and painted, torn out faded flooring and laid parquet or replaced old tiles with terracotta. Shortly before the first lockdown in spring 2020, not only were the shelves of drugstores suddenly empty, DIY stores and garden centers were also posting record sales. In the first nine months of the year, sales were also 15 percent up on 2019 – and that wasn’t the end of it. From September through the end of November, German DIY megastore Hornbach alone booked growth of a good 20 percent. Covid had transformed Germany into a do-it-yourself nation.

Premium Investments in Upholstery

And the furniture industry? Milan was canceled and other fairs postponed; what is more, the IKEA catalogue is now only available online. This was the most important news of the year. Even if at times the outlook was not good, with slumps of ten percent or more being forecast, in the middle of the year, the sector actually picked up again. “The demand for furniture on the domestic market has proved particularly robust,” explains Jan Kurth, CEO of VDM, the Association of the German Furniture Industry and the Specialist Furniture Associations, at the end of August. His prediction at the time was a drop of five percent. However, here too the trends were anything but even. Albeit not representative, a survey of a number of premium brands comes to completely different conclusions. 2020 was a boom year for high-end furniture, with sales such as to underscore all the trends of the preceding years. Because of Covid it was a sofa rather than Sofia, and a couch rather than Capri. Particularly durable investments in home comforts were the order of the day. Homes were jazzed up with almost unprecedented verve.

And Covid appears not to have been the sole culprit here. The prescribed introspection – a kind of Covid Biedermeier – has been the motivation behind a number of purchases, particularly in the upper price segment. According to a study commissioned by the German furniture association, in 2019 Germans spent an average of 725 Euro on new furniture, half of which went on kitchens. Today, anybody speaking to or rather wanting to speak to top-of-their-trade carpenters, can expect to have to wait for months. A trend that has been on the rise in recent years, be it for high-grade woods, much more exotic than oak, elaborate custom-built fitted cabinets or weaknesses for perfect home automation, everything has certainly been topped – Wi-Fi and convenience now determine home movie theaters, lighting control systems, and hi-fi components. Kitchens are the
prestige objects par excellence – and are now even threatening to steal a march on automobiles. Nowadays, even upholsterers are turning down work – so bad luck if you urgently want that old armchair re-covered. Come back in the fall, is what they were saying in the spring 2020, or better still in 2021. All those specialist tradespeople seemed to be booked out for the rest of the year. The new introspection even found its way to designers, interior decorators and designers. While products due to be launched at the trade fairs largely fell victim to the enforced shutdowns, the above-mentioned creatives focused on customized products and special editions. The trend towards luxury remains unbroken – even in these times of crisis.

Furnishing furore and Covid cocooning

So what is the psychology behind this passion for furnishings? As German artist Heinrich Zille once put it, an apartment can kill a person just as easily as an axe – and he certainly wasn’t thinking about his contemporaries’ bad taste, but rather about social privations in the furthermost corners of Berlin’s tenement blocks. And today, the social aspect of the apartment question has again reared its head. Indeed, the prescribed introspection in the year of the coronavirus has clearly prompted us to discover parallels to the Biedermeier culture of 200 years ago. Even then, the world was shrinking dramatically. Steam power offered the same kind of acceleration of people’s entire lives that we see nowadays in the digital workbench or those algorithms that are already producing pretty passable functional texts. The First Industrial Revolution created the proletariat and advanced a romantic view of the losers in that situation of radical change – towns with rambling streets full of half-timbered houses and untouched nature. Never was the Rhine so much the subject of literature as when it was threatening to deteriorate into an industrial sewer.

However, when it comes to the environment, today we really do have our backs to the wall – neither voluntary restrictions nor a belief in the market’s ability to change will achieve very much if we really want to become climate neutral by 2030. However, for years now, instead of keeping our eyes on the ball we have been navel-gazing. Cocooning is not just another byproduct of Covid 19, it has simply become more pronounced – and necessarily so. In the 19th century, the fact that the German middle classes retreated to their own four walls was a facet of their political disempowerment after a futile French revolution, the restoration of the aristocracy, and the fragmentation of the political landscape into ever smaller units. As tempting as it is to immediately relate this to the present day in the face of such buzzwords as federalism reform, Infection Protection Act and curfews during lockdown, it quickly becomes clear that beyond people’s perceived powerlessness we are talking about two completely different societies – the first autocratic 19th century Germany and the second our free 21st-century society with its myriad of opportunities for participation at all political and social levels.

It is true – in 2020 distant travel destinations were not exactly a big hit but instead the focus was on people’s own homes – for some people there was no alternative, others needed them to compensate for an oppressive situation. The feeling of at least doing something by taking up a cordless screwdriver offered a kind of psychological relief. Houses and apartments were the unexpected winners in that year of crisis, that crazy year and they have had great potential as far as designers are concerned. The next step seems logical – in 2021, it will be the turn of the yard, people’s own expanse of greenery. And there is much work to be done there – both for landscape architects and for gardeners.