By Michael Z. Wise
Soon after the Hapsburg monarchy collapsed in 1918, the Austrian president set up offices in the former Imperial Palace in Vienna and began receiving official visitors in what was once Empress Maria Theresa’s bedroom. Its royal family having gone into exile, Austria placed the glittering crowns and silver on public display.
But the republic was less certain about what to do with another horde of property inherited from the defunct monarchy — in a rarefied attic known as the Imperial and Royal Court Furniture Warehouse. Established by Empress Maria Theresa in 1747, it contains some 55,000 objects ranging from thrones to king-size beds, mirrors to bird cages, candelabras to coat racks.
Austrian officials, who might have sold off the depository’s contents to relieve the financial calamity that followed World War I, chose to keep them intact and thereby preserve one of the world’s most curious collections of household artifacts in what is now called the Imperial Furniture Collection. A portion of the depot was transformed in 1998 into an elaborate museum, in a century-old warehouse complex halfway between the Hofburg Palace in the heart of Vienna and Schonbrunn, once the Hapsburg summer residence on the capital’s southern edge.
Spread out over three floors, the collection took a good two and a half hours to wander through on an April visit. The part of the depository that is open to the public retains something of the feel of a secluded storage facility and the staff dusting the furniture sometimes outnumbers visitors. Outstanding pieces of craftsmanship and woodworking are on view in a museum setting. But visitors also have the opportunity to peer into jammed bins and storerooms where antique sofas, tables and headboards are piled high atop one another.
This is some of the overwhelming mass of material remaining from a dynastic system that gave way to democracy and the European struggle for national self-determination. Seemingly endless quantities of footstools, fire irons, fireplace screens, wall sconces, valances, picture frames, bell pulls and bric-a-brac are cheek by jowl. Then there are the 15,000 chairs once used by the court and its retinue, some Rococo, others austere Thonet bentwood, along with more unusual pieces like an 18th-century wheelchair, upholstered in plush, that was designed for Maria Theresa’s mother, Empress Elisabeth Christine.
Many objects are fine examples of the decorative and applied arts; others are purely functional. Even royalty has common needs and so the collection contains a formidable array of chamber pots, bidets and washbasins. But in this assemblage, the most mundane items have a certain flair: porcelain toothbrush-holders are emblazoned with the imperial double eagle and wastepaper baskets are delicately fashioned out of choice fruit woods, sometimes in imaginative forms like an oversize set of books.
Since Hapsburg scions and courtiers were fond of snuff and tobacco chewing, the collection contains row upon row of elegant spittoons. This virtual parade of cuspidors, dozens edged in gilt and scores more crafted of fluted mahogany, conjures up the specter of noblemen expectorating loudly as they debate developments in Bukovina and other far-flung corners of the empire.
“Furniture tells history,” is the title of the permanent exhibition, and indeed much of the collection has more than purely aesthetic value. Maria Theresa’s imposing desk of palisander marquetry with bone inlay evinces the empire’s vanished grandeur. Other pieces recall epic events in the Hapsburg imperial saga, like the cradle used by the infant Crown Prince Rudolf, whose subsequent suicide shook the Austro-Hungarian realm, and the coffin in which the body of Emperor Maximilian was returned to Austria from Mexico after his execution by Benito Juarez’s forces in 1867.
The Hapsburgs reigned for seven centuries. Furniture in the collection bears witness to three of these, tracing successive generations’ changes in taste, from Maria Theresa’s liking for ornate splendor to the relatively simple salon furniture made in 1912 for Charles I, who four years later became the last Austrian kaiser upon the death of his father, Francis Joseph. A focal point is the eclectic Biedermeier period, which ran roughly from the end of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 through the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848; the furniture is characterized by sober lines and modest proportions.
Visitors can also examine a multitude of more elaborate neo-Rococo pieces, upholstered in red silk damask, which are favored by the current Austrian government for use in ministerial offices and at state banquets. Despite the gilded magnificence of such pieces, compared to those of the French or English royal houses, Austrian rulers were by and large thrifty and moderate in their choice of interiors. “The thrones look paltry,” given that they were once occupied by the sovereign of much of Europe, says the collection’s deputy director, Ilsebill Barta-Fliedl.
Still, in terms of the sheer quantity of furnishings, the Hapsburg dynasty was more than able to hold its own. That such a depository arose in the first place stems from the custom that until the early 19th century Hapsburg residences, which included dozens of palaces, castles and hunting lodges scattered throughout the empire, were emptied of their contents when not occupied by the monarch and his or her family.
In its early years, the depot also provided furniture when the court, numbering over 1,000 people, traveled abroad for affairs of state like coronations and weddings. To prepare for such occasions, up to 100 carriages loaded with beds, tables and chairs traveled ahead. Made to measure for the practical requirements of a crowned head on the move, the collection includes collapsible thrones covered in gold brocade.
In addition to the original items assembled by the imperial household, the depot now holds an important and growing array of modern furniture, like works by the early 20th-century Viennese architects Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Josef Olbrich. While the modern holdings here can’t compete in size with the Wiener Werkstatte and other 20th-century objects at the Vienna Museum of Applied Art, there are many pieces of equal quality.
A notable acquisition that went on display last year was the interior of the apartment of the celebrated ceramist Lucie Rie, taken with her to London when she left her native Vienna to escape Nazi persecution in 1938. Designed by a modernist architect, Ernst Plischke, it comprises a compact and unadorned, yet highly refined, living room and bedroom with built-in bookcases and cupboards of walnut, along with coordinated walnut tables, stools, chairs and a bed. After Rie arrived in London, the Plischke pieces were adapted for her new home by another Viennese refugee, Ernst Freud, the architect son of the founder of psychoanalysis. The furniture came full circle when it was bought by the depot after Rie’s death in 1995.
Throughout the depot’s history, keeping track of the inventory has been a major undertaking. To this day, the Viennese are keen practitioners of bureaucratic administration, and relevant documents are prominently displayed at the museum. Handwritten stock lists show that imperial functionaries divided the furniture into hierarchical categories — with polished mahogany pieces considered the finest. Oak and gray-painted softwood items came at the lower end of the echelon.
However, administration of the depot had its lapses after World War II. A note in one display case reveals that the furniture depository, like other Austrian state collections, took control of property stolen from Jews who were either murdered or, like Rie, managed to flee the country after its annexation by Germany. The category Judenmobel, or Jewish furniture, appears atop a yellowing inventory document in the case. Although in 1946 the depot was required to declare whether it had any such holdings, the exhibit states, “It was practically impossible for the former owners to trace their property since the furniture depot carried out this declaration requirement hesitantly and incompletely.”
For reasons that remain unclear, the Gestapo transferred the contents of eight households to the depot, whereas tens of thousands of other Jewish households were looted by neighbors and officials. Some of these pieces were then lent out for use in government offices and Austrian embassies abroad, the depot now concedes. A 1998 Austrian law on restitution of so-called Aryanized property has led to the return of some items. A special exhibition devoted to photographs of these objects and others for which heirs have not yet been found is being held at the warehouse through Nov. 19.
Before the modern museum opened, the depot was little known to the general public, although a limited portion of its contents went on view in a more haphazard fashion in the decade after the monarchy’s demise. Summing up the then bare-bones transformation of the warehouse into an exhibition space, the Viennese author Alfred Polgar wrote in 1929, “They put up a sign reading ‘Please don’t touch the objects’ and wrote on the doors ‘entrance’ and ‘exit.’ ”
Between the wars, state authorities envisioned the depot as an educational tool that would also promote furniture manufacture based on period pieces. Fifteen period rooms documenting Biedermeier decor and living styles were created, in part, for designers to show clients how these reproductions would look in larger settings. The period rooms survive in the new museum, along with an exhibition of furniture wood types, finishes and antique upholstery techniques.
“For Americans, the collection provides an introduction they will get nowhere else,” said Derek Ostergard, associate director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York. “It gives you the underpinnings of what the 18th and 19th centuries were all about in terms of history and design.”