If a new National Treasure movie decides to go international, then the furniture of Abraham and David Roentgen will almost certainly play a part in the plot. Even Nicolas Cage’s Ben Gates would have a tough time finding all of the secret switches and hidden compartments in this 18th century work, dubbed the “Berlin Secretary Cabinet.” The third and most elaborate of the Roentgen workshop’s three large secretary cabinets, this piece was purchased by King Frederick William II as a royal “entertainment system” and was “the most expensive piece of furniture ever made.”
And yet this piece is just one of the signature items crafted by the father-and-son team of Abraham and David Roentgen–and their workshop of skilled artisans–from about 1742 to the early 1800s. Designed by combining intricate and intriguing mechanical devices with traditional French and English furniture styles, Roentgen pieces–known as “Neuwied Furniture” due to the workshop’s location in Neuwied am Rhein, Germany–were desired by an international clientele of royals. In addition to King Frederick William II of Prussia, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, and Empress Catherine the Great of Russia also purchased the Roentgens’ work, which brought the furniture-makers international fame and fortune.
As fascinating and multi-faceted as the Roentgens’ furniture is, the story of their journey is even moreso. Abraham, who left Germany as a journeyman cabinetmaker around 1731, found early success thanks to the wealthy aristocracy in London. After some time spent in excess, Roentgen joined the Moravian Brethren, a religious community known as the Herrnhut Brotherhood. This association would give him access to an international system of trading and financial networks which would help to establish his eventual workshop, which he opened in Frankfurt in 1742 after a failed trip to North Carolina (due to a run-in with pirates).
Roentgen’s increasingly intricate designs would eventually lead to outlandishly expensive purchases by nobles and royalty across Europe, though the continent’s tumultuous time during the Seven Years’ War hampered the workshop’s success. It was due to David’s innovative marketing idea of holding a furniture lottery for their sought-after pieces that restored financial health to the workshop and opened the door to the highest-level clients of European royalty. However, the French Revolution would eventually put pressure on European nobility, and by extension, the Roentgen workshop. David Roentgen, now an appointed Prussian diplomat, would close the family business in 1801.
For more of the Roentgen workshop’s pieces, be sure to check out demonstrations of a dressing table, Abraham’s writing desk (pictured above), David’s rolltop desk, and even a dulcimer-playing automaton of Marie Antoinette pulled straight from the Uncanny Valley.
Images: The Met