Furniture, German

Furniture of Germanic derivation has come to Canada as a result of emigration from Germany and from Pennsylvania (see GERMANS). Traditional German furniture in Europe evolved over several centuries to serve the needs of ordinary, primarily rural, people. The basic forms changed little through the years, although stylistic influences were adopted from fashionable furniture designs from time to time. The most important of these influences and, in fact, the dominant style of traditional German furniture in the 18th and 19th centuries was the baroque style, which inspired the complex intersecting curves in the design profiles and a profusion of decorative elements in surface treatment.

Traditional German furniture makers were excellent craftsmen, and even the most commonplace objects were carefully made, with well-fitted dovetail joints, crisp moldings, neat cutouts and pleasing proportions. The more ambitious and formal examples display excellent carving and inlay work. There were numerous centres of German settlement in early Canada, where skilled immigrant craftsmen made furniture in the traditional styles of the homeland. In NS, Germans arrived as early as 1749, and throughout the 19th century, thousands came to Ontario from the continent and from Pennsylvania.

As the Prairie provinces developed, groups of MENNONITES and HUTTERITES found refuge there. The German settlements included members with a wide range of traditional skills; thus, the old traditions survived in many centres with little influence from the outside. Germanic furniture made in Canada includes a range of traditional forms which reflect several centuries of style and many regional characteristics.

These traditional elements may be seen in combination with ideas adopted from the English-speaking community, especially in Pennsylvania-German furniture made in Ontario. The Pennsylvania Germans brought a furniture tradition which had been substantially altered as a result of their American experience. In particular, they had adopted the English Chippendale style in more formal furniture forms such as writing desks, chests of drawers and tall case clocks. Continental styles were retained in tables, benches, storage chests, cradles and other utilitarian furnishings.

Similarly, the traditional German styles occurred, with various modifying influences, in other Canadian centres until mass-produced furniture largely replaced that of the local craftsman in the early 20th century. The most common forms in the German tradition are storage chests, tables, benches, chairs, cradles, beds, dish dressers, cupboards and schrank.

Storage Chests

Storage chests are, typically, simple rectangular forms. They may be plain or enriched by panels, moldings or turned details arranged in a geometric design. The base is sometimes intricately shaped or the chest might sit on bulbous turned feet.

Tables

The most common design in dining tables was the sawbuck type, which has X-shaped trestles and a central stretcher supporting the tabletop. Most German country tables have a shaped cleat under the tabletop at each end, through which wooden pins are inserted to secure the top to the base; the top can be easily removed for cleaning.

Benches

Benches, the traditional seating form at these tables, were of simple plank construction on shaped trestles. The most popular type of chair was also of plank construction, with a shaped, often carved, back. The seat is a solid plank; the simple legs, inserted into cleats under the seat, lack the stretchers (to strengthen the chair base) found in many country chair designs.

Beds and Cradles

Beds and cradles are often of panelled construction, or the profiles may be a complex arrangement of intersecting curves. Many German cradles feature distinctive heart-shaped cutouts at the head and foot, decorative elements that also serve as handles.

Dish Dressers

Dish dressers with open shelves above and drawers and doors below were popular in country kitchens; wall cupboards and corner cupboards with glazed doors were used in the better rooms, particularly in urban houses. The recurring baroque influence is often apparent in these pieces in the complex curves and arches in the design of cornices and door panels.

Schrank,

Schrank, a large storage cupboard or wardrobe, is the most important form in the German furniture tradition and provided the craftsman with an opportunity to display his finest skills in creating elaborate panels, moldings and various surface treatments. The traditional schrank had 2 large doors, possibly 2 or more drawers below and different interior arrangements of hangers, shelves or drawers for storing clothing, linens, utensils, food or other household items. Because of its great size, the schrank was usually made in sections which could be separated for moving. Those used in the kitchen for food (milchschrank) have open grillwork in the doors for ventilation.

An attractive aspect of German traditional furniture, and further evidence of the baroque influence, is the extensive use of surface decoration employing various motifs including flowers, leaves, birds, stars, whorls, hearts and geometric designs, as well as names and dates in a calligraphic style. Often, the decoration commemorates a family event such as a wedding, anniversary or birth.

These decorations may be painted in different polychrome techniques, carved into the surface or inlaid in contrasting wood tones. Furniture with painted decoration was usually made of softwood (eg, pine); inlaid or carved pieces were fashioned in hardwoods and were likely to be more sophisticated in style and execution.

See also GERMANIC FRAKTUR AND CALLIGRAPHY.