Mechanical Furniture From Marie Antoinette to Micro Apartments

Leah Honor, Marsha James and Lauren Restivo

With growing populations, limited space, and rising rents, apartments in global cities are becoming smaller and smaller. And increasingly, an emerging trend in urban-dwelling is the use of multi-function furniture for space and money saving purposes. But the history of this mechanical furniture is one of royal origins. Mechanical furniture first appeared in the 18th-century as a way for nobility to keep their personal items hidden in secret compartments and drawers. But it quickly grew in popularity as a unique addition to the homes of the European upper class. Kings and queens filled their rooms with mechanical cabinetry that made drawers and mirrors appear by triggering hidden releases.

Perhaps the most famous of 18th-century European mechanical cabinetmakers is David Roentgen, who in 1780 was appointed master cabinetmaker to Marie Antoinette. Roentgen inherited his furniture shop in Neuwied, Germany from his father in 1772 and worked to expand the shop’s presence internationally. His style ranged from intricate Rococo carvings and marquetry to classical inlays of mahogany. Throughout his career, Roentgen continued to work with European royalty, including Catherine the Great of Russia and the Prussian king, Frederick William II.

The rise of the cast iron safe for the storage of valuables allowed Roentgen to shift the focus of his mechanical creations away from security and towards convenience and curiosity. He produced game tables with multiple inlaid boards on movable surfaces, and pop up compartments to house decks of cards and markers in card tables. Today his work is collected worldwide, by private individuals such as the British Royal Family and museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The shift in the purpose of mechanical furniture from security to convenience led to many innovations that we now consider common household items, such as murphy beds and foldaway tables. This allowed for comfort and convenience as people began to travel more extensively and live in smaller spaces.

Today, the secret compartments of Roentgen’s furniture have evolved into the space saving devices seen popping up in micro apartments across New York City. In these small spaces, staircases sometimes double as drawers, couches transform into full size beds, and entire home offices close up and fold neatly into the wall. It is because of the creative genius of historic mechanical ébénistes like Roentgen, that today we have such a myriad of space saving innovations in modern furniture.

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