Riesener was highly skilled at using a wide variety of woods and joinery to create his furniture.
The wood he most frequently used to make the carcases (the inner wooden framework of a piece of furniture) and drawers was oak. It is typically high quality, slow grown but with imperfections (such as knots), which have been incorporated in such a way that does not affect the strength or appearance of the carcases. In some of his carcases, Riesener also used conifer and mahogany.
A number of constructional features make Riesener’s furniture distinctive. The carcases are nearly always of a box construction, meaning that their tops, bottoms and sides (which have been made from multiple pieces of butt-jointed timber), have been joined together, either with dovetail or mortise and tenon joints.
Sometimes, where his designs for furniture carcases or drawers required curves, Riesener used a lamination technique, where sections of timber, with their woodgrains horizontally aligned, are glued on top of each other, reinforcing them against shrinkage (damage caused by changes in moisture content in wood).
Characteristically, the drawers in Riesener’s furniture are skilfully made, consisting of two sides dovetailed into a back and a front. These dovetails are well made, with the pins being cut with a wide base.
The bottoms of Riesener’s drawers are made separately from the drawer frame, and nearly always have concave rebates (grooves) running along their fronts and sides. These would have been created using a convex moulding plane.
The backs of the carcases typically have backboards which are removable, sliding out, from top to bottom, along grooves either side of the carcase. They are a panel and frame construction; the frame being held together with mortise and tenon joints. Once these backboards are removed, the contents of the carcase (such as the inner cabinets) can be taken out.
This modular furniture construction was ingenious and helped save Marie-Antoinette’s fall-front desk from destruction whilst being inventoried by the Revolutionary government in 1794. Officials were unable to find the desk’s key but gained access to the interior and its contents by sliding out the backboard.
Reproducing similar carcase constructions across his furniture meant that Riesener was able to maintain the productivity of his workshop and fulfil the large numbers of commissions he received from the French royal family. Carcases would have followed predetermined designs, which meant that production was streamlined and formulaic, and could even be subcontracted to other craftspeople.
This production method also allowed the workshop to react quickly to commissions and to create magnificent furniture in a relatively short space of time. For example, the chest-of-drawers commissioned by the comtesse de Provence in 1776 was designed, made and delivered by Riesener within 50 days. The speed of its creation would suggest that even a piece of furniture as important as this was made using prefabricated components.
Despite all of Riesener’s forward planning and time-saving initiatives, there were occasions when he was commissioned to make unprecedented pieces of furniture, ambitious in form and decoration, that did not conform to his predetermined carcase designs. These situations often presented challenges which Riesener had to overcome with untried designs and joinery. This was the case with the comtesse de Provence’s jewel cabinet, which Riesener delivered to her bedroom at Versailles in 1787.
One of the greatest difficulties Riesener faced with this piece was its scale, and as a result, its weight. To ensure that the oak timbers of the carcase stood firm against this weight, pieces of wood or ‘tongues’ of another wood were inserted along the length of the timbers and interlocked with adjoining timbers. This technique of joining timbers appears to be unique in Riesener’s work and demonstrates his ability to think creatively about furniture design. These loose tongue joints also appear between the timbers of other crucial weight-bearing parts of the cabinet’s structure, such as the stretchers that secure each set of four legs.
However, the presence of several changes made on the carcase suggests that Riesener’s design process, at least in this case, may have been one of experimentation, and that he did not necessarily arrive at a structural solution on first attempt. This design intelligence is what marks out Riesener as an extraordinary cabinetmaker. He was able to identify the simplest and most efficient ways of making furniture, whilst remaining capable of adjusting his designs and joinery to meet the requirements of extravagant projects.