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The forerunner of modern furniture

The Biedermeier style reflected a new preoccupation with functionality over ornamentation.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Antique dealer Rupert Cavendish stumbled upon Biedermeier furniture by accident when his business partner bought the wrong lot number at an auction.

But that mistaken purchase 25 years ago has led him to specialize in the 19th century style which has influenced architects and designers across Germany, central Europe and Scandinavia.

Despite its age, Biedermeier is seen by many as the forerunner of modern furniture, and a key predecessor of 20th century movements such as Bauhaus and Art Deco.

Cavendish explained that the style could be dated to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, reflecting changing tastes across Europe from the grand, elaborately detailed furniture of the imperial age to an era of simpler, more functional design shorn of ornamentation.

"It comes after Empire, but it's simpler, geometric," Cavendish told CNN. "If you have never seen Biedermeier before, it looks astonishingly modern.

"Anyone could think it was made in Paris in 1920, where in fact it was made in Austria and Germany in 1820, 100 years before most people would expect."

The name Biedermeier, which dates from the mid-19th century, mockingly reflects the style's middle class origins. In German, "bieder" means everyday or plain, while "Meier" is a common surname.

But the style's bourgeois origins didn't hinder its popularity. As it spread across Europe, dispersed by traveling craftsman, Biedermeier proved as popular with royalty and aristocracy.

Cavendish has more than just a professional interest in Biedermeier. Many of his favorite pieces adorn his west London home. Characteristic features include simple lines and blonde wood typical of the more northern European style.

"I started by loving Empire furniture more than anything else. But I found that I preferred [Biedermeier's] light blond woods and relative simplicity. I don't like clutter myself.

"A lady once bought a birch wood dining table in our shop and she said she felt like she could throw a bread roll over it. That is a remark I actually rather like because the light blond Biedermeier has a quality of informality."

In response to growing demand for the style, Cavendish has started making his own designs and reproductions -- prompted by a celebrity Biedermeier fan.

"The person who really got us going as a serious designer, was Elton John, because he bought a lot of antiques from us and then he said: 'I want to do the bedrooms in Biedermeier as well,'" said Cavendish.

"I said: 'Well, we don't get Biedermeier double bed except maybe once every two years,' and he said, 'I want six and one single.'

"So we designed six doubles, one single, a mirror, a wardrobe and various other bits and pieces for him. He was the person who really jolted us and made us realize that there was more to life than making the odd rectangular coffee table."

With original pieces costing anything from $500 to $40,000, the option of decorating an entire house in the Biedermeier style may not be within everyone's price range.

But Cavendish says the beauty of the style is that it works so well with contemporary furniture, creating a relaxed and informal atmosphere untypical of more traditional antiques.

"It is the first great functional style," he said. "Antiques before Biedermeier were made to go in a room, in a place in that room. It was a revolution therefore, that you could use it for anything you wanted, anywhere you want it."

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