Maria Theresa, empress and interior designer

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Maria Theresa had a penchant for building and furnishing – but her husband decamped from the rooms she had designed in Schönbrunn after only two nights.

Be charitable, but in moderation. Do not give more than you can afford. Abstain from frivolous purchases of trinkets, clothes and lace, et cetera. A sovereign must purchase things of this kind in order to support craftsmen, yet make it a rule that these should be objects made in your own country and not purchased from abroad.

Moderation and restraint were the tenor of the rules of conduct that Maria Theresa sent to her daughter, Archduchess Caroline, Queen of Naples.

She takes pleasure in building without understanding anything about it, to which the house that she has had built at Schönbrunn to her taste testifies.

Count Podewils, the envoy of Frederick the Great at the Viennese Court, wrote of Maria Theresa’s predilection for building.

The Hofburg is very commodious but has nothing good in the way of architecture or décor’.

A French traveller passed judgement on the Hofburg in 1747/1748.In 1781 another traveller compared it to a ‘beautiful barracks’.

From the reign of Maria Theresa especial importance was attached to family life in the House of Habsburg. Changes in the style of decoration were also occasioned by family events, with some rooms being refurbished when a member of the dynasty married. At that time the Viennese Court was under the cultural influence of the court at Paris which was the leading European arbiter in questions of taste. Life was lived in elegance, palaces appointed with exquisite furniture, wall-hangings, curtains, porcelain and exotic imported materials. In the eyes of the Austrian monarch, this kind of spending was profligate. The Viennese Court had far fewer funds at its disposal than the court at Versailles; thus the imperial residences were built on a much smaller scale and their interiors were more restrained.

In contrast to the court of Louis XV, furnishings were not works of art but objects of everyday use. They were used, became worn, were given to other members of the family and finally given away to Court servants. Following illnesses, beds and bedding were given away. Wall panelling was reused and moved between various imperial residences. All of this goes to explain why very little furniture from the reign of Maria Theresa has survived.

The empress liked to occupy herself with questions of furnishing and architectural matters: she was interested in all the details, commissioned the decoration and furnishings, supervised the architects and artists and insisted on personally taking all decisions, no matter how trivial, concerning the acquisition and repair of furniture or whether they were to be transferred to other residences. She even interfered in the interior decoration projects of her children at other courts. Her principal concern was always economy. Whenever she commissioned an object the important thing was not luxury but speed and price. For each commission from the Court there had to be three cost estimates, and it was the lowest estimate that was awarded the contract. Maria Theresa favoured objects that were made in Austria over modish but expensive imports from France. This also explains why there was no French furniture at the Viennese court.

Julia Teresa Friehs