Born Mühlheim, Germany, 1711. Died Herrnhut, Germany, 1793
Abraham Roentgen learned cabinet-making from his father, then worked in the Netherlands and for various London masters. He was regarded as an expert in metal inlay.
Around 1738, ‘struck as if by lightning’, Roentgen joined the Moravian Church (a Protestant sect) and returned to Germany. He married, then undertook an abortive missionary voyage. In 1750 he moved with the Moravians to Neuwied and established a furniture workshop, selling at the Frankfurt fairs.
After 1760, Roentgen’s furniture became more mechanically complex and luxuriously decorated. Despite his reputation and patronage, the business became financially overstretched and Abraham passed the management to his son David
Born Herrnhaag, Germany, 1743. Died Wiesbaden, Germany, 1807
David worked with his father Abraham as apprentice, then partner. He promoted the business successfully, but sometimes contrary to Moravian religious ideals of simplicity. With David managing the enlarged workshop, the constructional and mechanical ingenuity of the furniture became even more refined. It incorporated brilliant marquetry and, from about 1780, superb gilded-metal mounts.
David travelled widely, cultivating influential clients at various European courts. He established a branch in Paris and in a single year in St Petersburg sold 136 pieces to Catherine II. The French Revolution ruined this international trade. By 1801 he had wound up the business and was working for the Moravian Church.
Design – Abraham
As the master of a small workshop, Abraham designed and made furniture. He adapted English and Dutch designs for the German market, adding decorative options in luxury materials or motifs from imported prints. His greatest commissions, like the Walderdorff desk, combined lavish decoration in marquetry with ingenious mechanical devices.
Other Moravians criticised his opulent furniture but business continued. Abraham introduced innovative workshop practices. In particular, he developed standard elements with different surface decoration for use in many different types of furniture. His furniture could be dismantled for easier shipping: a practice that David Roentgen exploited for the transport of furniture hundreds of miles across Europe.
Design – David
David Roentgen’s international fame rested on energetic marketing. His first success came in 1769 when he organised a promotional lottery of unsold stock. Later, in Paris, he built on favour at court to open a shop. In Russia, the Empress Catherine II so admired his furniture that she paid over the asking price.
The ambitious and hugely expensive furniture relied on the skills of his mechanic, Johann Christian Krause, and his business partner and clock-maker Peter Kinzing.
Although Roentgen had a large workshop of about 40 craftsmen and a complex network of suppliers, he managed to avoid the cash-flow problems that ruined many 18th-century cabinet-makers.