The Designs, Materials and Techniques

The Designs, Materials and Techniques

The Designs, Materials and Techniques

A true master of the art of cabinetmaking, Riesener had a remarkable talent for designing furniture and selecting the most appropriate materials and techniques to create it.

His rigorous training through the French guild system and his time in Jean-François Oeben's workshop exposed him to a diverse range of cabinetmakers, professional practices and joinery techniques, all of which influenced him. However, the primary influence on Riesener was Oeben, who, as official cabinetmaker to the king, was at the forefront of French furniture design, using sophisticated mounts, marquetry and joinery techniques to accomplish his work.

Oeben’s legacy remained with Riesener throughout most of his career. He drew frequently on his master’s practices and improved them, before taking his own course.

The most notable example of this is the King’s Desk, which was started by Oeben but completed by Riesener. Oeben devised the innovative roll-top design which Riesener went on to reuse and refine, making it one of his trademark furniture models.

He also continued to develop a number of joinery techniques pioneered by Oeben, such as laminating small sections of timber to create curved structures and his sophisticated mechanical and locking systems.

A detail of small pieces of oak laminated horizontally on a marquetry chest of drawers
Detail of laminated pieces of oak used to make curved sections of carcase. Jean-Henri Riesener, Chest-of-drawers, 1778. Waddesdon Manor (National Trust) (2252).

Riesener was renowned for his marquetry, just as Oeben had been before him. Floral marquetry was a major element of both cabinetmakers’ work, with designs often taken from Louis Tessier’s Livre de Principes de Fleurs (Book on the Principles of Flowers).

A detail of marquetry flowers on a work table
Detail of floral marquetry. Attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener, Work-table, c. 1765 (F313).

Riesener later reimagined floral marquetry within geometric patterns; work of great skill and precision.

A detail of trellis marquetry on a fall-front desk
Detail of trellis marquetry. Jean-Henri Riesener, Fall-front desk, 1780 (F300).

In Riesener’s work, pictorial marquetry was elevated to new heights of naturalism and took the form of vases of flowers or trophies of literary, scientific, pastoral or national attributes.

A detail of the marquetry floral vase on one of the lower doors of a fall-front desk
Detail of marquetry floral vase. Jean-Henri Riesener, Fall-front desk, 1780 (F300).

He achieved this by assembling many pieces of dyed and naturally coloured woods, like a jigsaw puzzle, before using a variety of techniques, such as engraving and sand shading, to accent their fine details.

Discover more about Riesener’s marquetry here

A detail of pictorial marquetry on the tambour of a roll-top desk
Detail of pictorial marquetry, showing the attributes of Lyric Poetry. Jean-Henri Riesener, Roll-top desk, c. 1770 (F102).

Riesener’s furniture is associated with jewellery-like gilt-bronze mounts, consisting of interlaced acanthus leaves and flowers, busts and masks in a neoclassical style, as well as floral swags and pendants. The quality and refinement of these mounts reached their height during the 1780s, particularly on the furniture he made for Marie-Antoinette.

A detail of the gilt-bronze floral frieze mount on a marquetry chest of drawers
Detail of gilt-bronze frieze mount and Marie-Antoinette’s cipher. Attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener, Chest-of-drawers, 1780 (F247).

The guild system at this time prevented Riesener from producing his own mounts, meaning he had to outsource the work. One of his most frequent collaborators was the bronze worker Étienne Martincourt.

Learn more about Riesener and gilt-bronze mounts here

As a cabinetmaker, Riesener may have been considered a craftsman but he clearly considered himself an artist. In the mid-1780s, at the peak of his celebrity, Riesener commissioned a self-portrait, which depicts him in the guise of an artist. Instead of being surrounded by tools and benches, he is portrayed in silk and lace, sitting at one of his own tables, with a red chalk in his hand working on a design for furniture mounts.

Explore the Riesener Microsite