Furniture Purveyor to the Russian Imperial Court

The Maple Drawing Room in the Alexander Palace.
Interior designed by R. Meltzer. 1902

The elegance of the “second rococo”, the Neo-gothic style with it’s “flight-to-the-sky” forms, the incomparable modernist style — all these stylistic features found their place in the furniture that was produced by the factory of brothers Meltzer. By right their products adorned the interiors of imperial palaces, aristocratic estates and bourgeoisie mansions, as well as middle class homes.

The second half of the XIX century in the history of Russian furniture was marked by a series of notable names. Among them were the celebrated furniture makers — Gambs brothers who received commissions from the imperial court, A. Toor, N. Svirsky and finally brothers Meltzer and their famous company “Meltzer F. & Co”.

From the preserved archival records we know that the firm “Meltzer F. & Co” was founded in St. Petersburg by a Frederich Johan (Fedor Andreevich) Meltzer, coach-maker, who bought a furniture factory from A. Toor in the 1860s. We can only guess when exactly the deal was arranged, however it was in 1896 that one of St. Petersburg newspapers published a note about the company saying that it had already been the property of the Meltzer family for 35 years. The founder of the factory already received commissions from the court. Some history scholars assert that when Emperor Alexander III found two identical bills from “Meltzer” for the same decoration job at the Anichkov Palace he banned the company from doing any work for the court. This unhappy event did not ruin the Meltzers, though.

The first large-scale commissions the factory had are usually dated back to 1875. This was the year when the two brothers produced a furniture set for the apartments of princess Maria Alexandrovna, duchess of Edinburgh, in the Farmers’ palace in Peterhoff. Practically at the same time, more furniture was made for the chambers of the Empress in the Great Tsarskoselsky Palace.

The father was taken over by his elder son, Fedor, who ran the factory since then. Historical documents show that in the year 1880 the factory was located in the city center at 17 Bolshaya Koniushennaya str. Further expansion of the factory and the outburst of its production were the reasons for the enlargement of workshops and their relocation. F. Meltzer’s second son Ernest, an army engineer, built new workshops for the factory on the embankment of the River Karpovka, 27–29. Furniture and joiner’s shops that belonged to the Meltzers were situated at Popova str., 18–20 and Kamennoostrovsky pr., 49–51. The brand-name “Meltzer” furniture stores opened at Kamennoostrovsky pr., 49/22 and Nevsky p., 13. Fedor Meltzer’s third son had a good education in arts and became a court architect. At the factory he was in charge of the design department that did single projects and model furniture for future production. Next door to this was an electro lamp shop headed by Ivan Trofimov-Meltzer, the adopted son of F. Meltzer. By the end of the century, the factory had 400 workers. It was one of the largest in the city and the undisputed leader of the industry.

One of the specialties of the Meltzer factory was a large variety of products aimed at various target audiences who had dissimilar tastes and belonged to different income groups. No less important was the fact that the Meltzers, besides producing single furniture, also engaged in interior design; the latter was, after all, what all the furniture was to fit in.

For the Meltzers nothing was unimportant in interior design. Wood paneling and doors, carefully chosen upholstery leather for walls, stucco moulding, bronze decor, lightning equipment, fireplaces and trivets, latches and many more things were produced on brand-name design models. Carpets and fabric needed for the design projects were imported from Europe.

“Meltzer F. & Co” was granted the high status of a furniture purveyor for the imperial court. Unlike his father Alexander III, the new emperor Nicolas II was disposed favourably toward Meltzer the son, and the factory was receiving all large orders from the court. To the present day, the repositories of the State Hermitage have preserved pieces of furniture made at the “Meltzer F. & Co” for the interiors of the Winter Palace.

In 1894 “Meltzer F. & Co” together with the factory of N. Svirski made some parts of the furniture for Nicolas II and his wife’s chambers in the Winter Palace. Later on, in 1894–1896, a mezzanine with a staircase and fitted bookcases were built for Tsar Nicolas’ library in the same palace; the design for the furniture was made by N. Nabokov in the Neogothic style that was just becoming trendy at the time. All pieces were made of the then fashionable walnut, the sort of wood that was nice and had a very rich texture; of walnut were also carved panels on the ceiling, large tables and benches, all fretted in Gothic patterns like lancet arches, rosettes and trefoils.

The 1880s was the time when the so called “second rococo” style flourished in Russia. This was also the decade when Fedor F. Meltzer began to design and produce rosewood furniture. At the same time, new type of finishing material — celluloid — was being put to use, as it was a good substitution for expensive ivory. All this enabled the factory to make furniture that looked similar to the specimen of a French technique called “bul”. The love of the Meltzers for the rococo style was still felt during next decades, too. In 1896, using a design made by his brother and court architect R. Meltzer, Fedor F. Meltzer did decoration works and produced furniture for the apartments of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, in the Alexandrovsky Palace of Tsarskoye Selo — the beloved country residence of the last members of the Romanov house. Besides the Empress’ Bedchamber, the Rosewood Drawing room was decorated, which required to manufacture around 40 separate furniture pieces from inlaid rosewood. Furnishings for the Lilac Study that comprised over 30 different things, were soon completed, too. Fedor F. Meltzer’s credo was that noting was trifling when one worked on interior decoration; therefore, even a piano in the study was made in the same style. Together with this, two other chambers were decorated — Tsar Nicolas’ study and his Dressing room, where many pieces of furniture bore some sort of historical reminiscence.

Many residence palaces in Peterhoff were decorated with furniture designed by R. Meltzer. For instance, several extant armchairs from the drawing rooms of Tsar’s daughters in the Lower Cottage are evidence of how inventively and skillfully he used English traditions of furniture making. An angle sofa with a high back and a baroque-style ornamented pediment with fashionable celluloid inlays were designed for the chamber of Grand Princess Olga Nikolayevna; though a piece of mass production, it was furniture of superior quality. Cabriole legs and relief trellis crowned by flowers on the pediment were to become characteristic features of all modernist style furniture; the latter was one of the next design trends the Meltzers turned to. In 1894 R. Meltzer designed decorations for Empress’ Maria Fedorovna study in the Cottage in Peterhoff where the new modernist style was already clearly perceptible. The walls were lined with small Karelian birch panels and a narrow shelf for the placement of decorative accessories and memorabilia. The upper section of each wall was upholstered with printed cotton displaying small flower designs, like on all the furniture in the room. However, the furniture suit, made of Karelian birch, was clearly modeled on the Chippendale style, which is indicative of English influences.

Certain empire reminiscences are evident in furniture Fedor F. Meltzer designed in the 1900s. This is, for instance, the 48 enameled chairs with gilded decor that became a natural addition to the interior of the Semicircular Hall in the Alexandrovsky Palace, like overtones to its strictly classical design.

At the turn of the century, the Meltzer factory paid its due tribute to the “Jacob” style; furniture was designed not only on high society demands, but also for the decoration of apartments of St. Petersburg citizens. The material was mahogany and brass straps. Experts in the history of the Meltzer factory maintain that specimens of this furniture remains popular to the present day popping up at many antique auctions all over the world.

The factory of Meltzer brothers reached its prime, however, in the epoch of modernist style that reigned in Russian culture since the 1890s.

A promo booklet published by “Meltzer F. & Co” at about that time displays oriental tendencies as part of the modernist trend. A good example of this could be an armchair with a rich ornamental decoration on its elbow-rests: flowers, birds and carved dragons. A wall mirror with the frame adorned by scrolls and a carved dragon again is another noteworthy picture from the booklet. All these things perfectly fitted in both newly designed interiors and old ones, adding to them a touch of the current fashion. The underlying principle of asymmetry of this furniture was one of the main stylistic features of the modernist style.

At the beginning of the XX century Meltzer brothers resumed decoration works in the Winter Palace, in the Alexandrovsky Palace and in the Lower Cottage of Peterhoff. Two main halls in the Alexandrovsky Palace — the New Study of Nicolas II and the Maple Drawing room of Empress Alexander Fedorovna — were decorated and furnished in 1902 and 1903; they became ‘classic’ in the history of Russian modernist furniture. Furniture designed by R. Meltzer and produced for the Emperor’s study at “Meltzer F. & Co” factory included an angle sofa and cupboard, bookcases and whatnots, a billiard table and a writing desk, along with chairs and armchairs with openwork backs and concave elbow-rests, all made of mahogany. For the Maple Drawing room of the Empress, F.F. Meltzer made thirty different pieces based on the design of his brother; the set included fitted and isolated furniture and as a whole organized the living space in an involved and dynamic way. A screen, a rounded angle sofa, a variety of asymmetrical sofa consoles, chairs with their backs looking like a flower calyx, the use of a new type of wood (stained paperback maple) — everything was innovative and unusual for furniture making of that period.

Around the same time a design project of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna’s Bathroom in Tsarskoye Selo was made by R. Meltzer and realized at the factory. Simultaneously the factory made furniture sets for children’s rooms in the Alexandrovsky Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, among them a dining room, a drawing room and a bedroom. All this furniture for children’s rooms displays distinct features of the so-called “rationalistic” modernist style with its simplicity of forms and light, laconic design. In the 1900s, it came to substitute the early modernist designs characterized by intricacy and mostly floristic imagery.

The first decade of the new century in “Meltzer F. & Co” was marked by the appearance of practical and exceptionally light furniture, which corresponded to the aesthetics of the second wave of Russian modernist style. It was not infrequent that furniture was decorated with inlays of tinted glass, which effectively brightened up the light-colored wood.

“Meltzer F. & Co” did furnishings for an imperial summer residence in Livadia, in the Crimea peninsula, and for tsar’s yachts and trains. Besides commissions from the court, Meltzer brothers did decoration and furniture projects for Russian nobles, bourgeoisie, the merchant class and other well-off people. Among these projects were mansions of G. Eliseev (1895), A. Kelch (1896–1897), E. Nobel (1899–1900), S. Vitte (1903–1904), M. Kshesinskaya (1895–1896 and 1906). The so-called Polovtsev Cottage was a remarkable specimen of an interior (library) made of oak with a brass decor.

“Meltzer F. & Co” was a constant partaker in Russian and international industry fairs where it displayed exhibits of its own production as well as pavilions and their interiors, showcases, signboards and equipment. The company was more than once awarded highest prizes for its furniture.

The superior quality of “Meltzer F. & Co” products was an attraction for customers from other cities of the world. The year 1900 brought orders for furnishing and decoration from Moscow, among them the mansion of merchant S. Riabushinski, the hotel building and company office for the “Metropol” company, a restaurant interior in “Moskovskaya” hotel etc.

By order from A. Volkonsky, F.F. Meltzer sold furniture to Rome. The heirs to F. Tereshenko, a Russian manufacturer from Kiev, ordered furniture, too. Right at the end of the XIX century R. Meltzer designed a mansion for B. and V. Khanenko in Kiev (today this building is home for The State Museum of Western and Oriental Art). Wall and ceiling paneling, like in most interiors done by “Meltzer F. & Co”, was made of wood, the upper part of the walls was upholstered by stamped leather. A fireplace and a statue of a medieval knight have it all a Gothic look.

According to the facts we know, the last substantial order the company got was the furnishing of the Bulgarian Tsar’s palace that was finished in a very short time, as was usual for “Meltzer F. & Co”, during 1913–1914.

At the beginning of the XX century “Meltzer F. & Co” first turned to producing merely functional types of furnishings. First of all it was a set of furniture for the Imperial Clinical Maternity Institute (1903–1904), along with offices for the St. Petersburg Assurance Society (1904) and The Tally and Credit Bank. The Ludwig Nobel Machinery Plant at Pirogovskaya embankment, 19 was designed by R. Meltzer and built in 1902–1903; it included a hostel block for workers and a public library that was situated on the other side of the river. The furniture for all these buildings, simple and functional, was also produced at the Meltzer factory.

During the World War I the company, all of a sudden, started the production of top wartime priorities like aircraft propellers, phone sets and telegraph equipment together with cases and boxes for them, etc. etc. The Furniture factory of Meltzer brothers ceased to exist in 1918, but left a large heritage of things that now belong to museum collections as well as to interiors of many private and official buildings in St. Petersburg.

Author: Marina Dashkova ~
© Antique Info Magazine #36/37 ~