Riesener pushed eighteenth-century furniture design to its limits. In his early career, his designs were heavily influenced by those of his master, Jean-François Oeben, who worked in a transitional style: neoclassical in taste but retaining some lingering rococo curves. Oeben’s design skills can be seen in the King’s Desk, which Oeben started in 1760, but Riesener delivered in 1769, after presenting the king with a series of designs for marquetry and mounts.
The designs the king settled on shows a number of classical motifs — laurel swags, lion pelts symbolising the hero Hercules, figures of Apollo and Calliope, acanthus flowers — contrasted with more rococo-style features such as a carcase with bombé sides and cabriole legs, decorated with floral marquetry. Riesener reused this model of desk (but made several constructional improvements to it) for the comte d’Orsay around 1770.
He also reused a simplified version of the innovative locking mechanism devised for the King’s Desk. The system consisted of metal levers at the back of the desk, which released the drawers in the lower part of the desk when the tambour was unlocked and fully opened. This mechanism became a common feature on desks made by Riesener until the end of his career.
By 1773, Riesener broke away from many of the designs and forms created by Oeben in the 1760s in favour of a newer, rectilinear type of neoclassicism. In order to impress his newfound patron, Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu, Riesener supplied him with a suite of furniture which embodied this nascent style. The chest-of-drawers which was part of the suite was in contrast to his previous furniture, being sarcophagus-shaped, break-fronted (that is, with a tripartite front) and decorated entirely in classical motifs.
His customary scrolling acanthus mounts were traded for female terms, a lion mask and incense burners, whilst his floral marquetry had been replaced with geometric trellis marquetry and stylised flower heads. With this, Riesener had hit on his own successful decorative formula, distinct from Oeben’s, and he continued to refine it throughout the 1770s, perhaps most notably on the chests-of-drawers delivered to Louis XVI in 1774, the comtesse de Provence in 1776 and Madame Élisabeth in 1778.
The 1780s witnessed a further refinement of Riesener’s neoclassical furniture designs. In 1780, he delivered a chest-of-drawers to Marie-Antoinette’s cabinet intérieur (private sitting room) at Versailles, which was radically different to any of his previous designs.
The trellis marquetry that he had produced in the 1770s had become smaller and more intricate (catering to the personal taste of the queen), and the mounts were described as being ‘new’ models; they consisted of naturalistic floral garlands, as opposed to heavy, stylised acanthus swags and scrolls, as seen on his previous furniture.
The piece was also designed to integrate with the wider decorative scheme of the room, for example, the pastoral plaque on the front of the drawers corresponded with the trophies on silk wall hangings, while the original apron mount (now replaced) consisted of two horns of plenty, a motif which was repeated in the room’s seat furniture.
Riesener continued to supply furniture in the 1780s for members of the royal family which developed and refined these marquetry and mount designs, including this writing table and fall-front desk for the Petit Trianon.
However, from the middle of the decade, Riesener began to make furniture decorated not with marquetry, but with beautifully figured mahogany veneers. Marie-Antoinette received a whole suite of mahogany furniture for her apartments at Versailles in 1784. This was part of a growing Anglomania in France, in which fashion looked to a more restrained English taste. A cylinder desk at the Wallace Collection exemplifies this new fashion and shows how Riesener exploited beautifully the fine mahogany veneer as a foil to the rich gilt-bronze mounts.
Since his death in 1806, Riesener’s designs for furniture, mounts and marquetry have provided inspiration to generations of furniture-makers, bronzeworkers and dealers.