Great Designs in Wood - Roentgen's Berlin Secretary Cabinet

By Chuck Ray | Posted: 07/05/2013 9:54PM

 

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations Fred Deneke of Arizona sent this along, and an amazing piece of mechanical woodworking it is.

"One of the finest achievements of European furniture making, this cabinet is the most important product from Abraham (1711--1793) and David Roentgen's (1743--1807) workshop. A writing cabinet crowned with a chiming clock, it features finely designed marquetry panels and elaborate mechanisms that allow for doors and drawers to be opened automatically at the touch of a button. Owned by King Frederick William II, the Berlin cabinet is uniquely remarkable for its ornate decoration, mechanical complexity, and sheer size.
This cabinet is from Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. http://www.metmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/listings/2012/roentgen

As you might imagine, the person who commissioned this walnut-veneered masterpiece must have had a bit of money. It was, in fact, the desk of King Frederick William II of Prussia, the well-fed fellow at the right, who ruled during the turbulent years of 1786 to 1797.

While we here in the newly-formed United States of America were struggling to feed the army and were making simply elegant but strictly functional wooden furniture, the heads of state over on the continent were still living the good life while most people were slowly starving. Frederick William went down in history as incapable of dealing with the political turmoil of the time, but nevertheless, a great friend of the arts. In the secretary cabinet above, we see that he clearly had a taste for flair in even something as theoretically simple as a desk. I'm sure his cabinet makers, the Roentgen brothers, appreciated his taste for the extravagantly exceptional, and the money it undoubtedly brought in.

The king's greatest contribution to the world of the arts, however, is one that you may be a little more familiar with. He commissioned the design and building of The Brandenburg Gate, which was completed in 1791. The Tor, as it is known in German, it a focal landmark of Berlin and has been an ironically glorious silent witness to many of the key moments in history: the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Cold War, and German re-unification. Intended by Frederick William as a monument to peace, it represented to many of the time the insensitivity of royalty to the plight of the masses while they, the royals, were enjoying the peak of their power.

Like so many things created by well-intentioned but tone-deaf leaders, the Gate outlived its builders to provide a quite different context to events. Fifteen years after its completion, and only nine years after Frederick Williams death, the People's Army of the Republic of France under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte marched through the Gate, spreading the slow but sure death knell for the royalty on the continent.

And while the Brandenburg Gate remains as a testament to the fragility of man's design for the world, the Roentgen's masterpiece in wood reminds us of the durability of man's creative genius.

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About the Author

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations

Chuck Ray

Dr. Charles D. “Chuck” Ray is Associate Professor of Wood Operations Research at Pennsylvania State University. His specialty is in the area of operations research, specifically those operational issues that confront the majority of the wood products sector. He previously spent 15 years in research and quality management for two large building products corporations, Temple-Inland Forest Products and Louisiana-Pacific. Ray is the sixth generation of his family to work in the sawmill industry, the Ray Brothers Lumber Company, established in East Texas before the turn of the last century. He can be reached at cdrpsu@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @ChuckDRay. He maintains an Extension website for Penn State at http://extension.psu.edu/woodpro and also writes a blog on all wood issues called Go Wood which can be found at http://gowood.blogspot.com.

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