Casing the Piano

The art case piano remains a viable niche.

By Jed Distler

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If someone asked you to define a modern concert grand, you’d likely describe it as a long, shiny black case supported by three legs, with a keyboard at one end. That’s a reasonable answer; after all, the public has long embraced this look as an archetype, in marked contrast to the diversity of design that characterized piano manufacturing from the late nineteeth to early twentieth centuries

This was the time when the piano reached the height of its popularity as the family’s home entertainment center, long before television, radio and recordings transformed music appreciation from an active to a passive avocation. Numerous piano firms emerged, aiming to serve a broad range of consumers with an equally wide selection of models to suit all tastes and budgets. These included custom-built art case pianos which held particular appeal for wealthy clients wishing to distinguish themselves from less affluent consumers. A piano lid was not merely a lid, but a large, double-sided canvas that allowed decorative artists plenty of room to depict mythical characters or family members strolling about the estate. Legs were not just functional, but lovely to look at in their ornate, elaborately handcrafted splendor. More often than not, the pedals were supported by a lyre-shaped object.

Art case aesthetics influenced more modestly designed pianos as well as the large, heavy uprights that eventually gave way to today’s smaller models. “Back in the mid-nineteenth century when we first started building instruments, grand pianos were square, heavily ornate with hand carved legs and elaborate arch work,” explains Ron Losby, president of Steinway & Sons in the Americas. “Generally, their design grew out of furniture styles that were popular at the time, and had little to do with anything simple or sleek. Harpsichord and clavichord styles reflect the tastes of their era, and pianos followed this course as well.”

Art case pianos may have a lower profile in the early twenty-first century than in their aforementioned heyday, but today they still occupy a strong niche market that firmly holds its own among collectables of value. Online resources point the way to a large community of dealers and restoration specialists, who, in turn, lead potential buyers to rare or unique models. Some pianos even turn up on eBay, including, recently, a well preserved, lavishly decorated 1874 vintage Broadwood eight and a half foot grand, priced at a mere 9.5 million dollars. Could Liberace’s singular 1976 Baldwin Grand covered in glittering mirrored squares fetch that amount?

In 1857, a little more than a year after producing its first grand piano in New York, Steinway built its first art case piano, inaugurating a tradition of limited editions and one-of-a-kind instruments that continues to this day. “It is the customers who find us,” says Losby. “We’ve had a following among many design houses or private designers whose clients have the interest and the resources to purchase such unique and expensive pianos.”

Considerable cost and workmanship go into creating an art case piano, and the process from beginning to end is not unlike ordering furniture to one’s specifications, or building a house from scratch. “We start first by asking questions,” Losby explains. “What periods of architecture do you feel an affinity towards? Something that’s modern, or reflective of the past? What colors do you like? Do you imagine something gilded, ornate, or baroque? Something that’s a bit more streamlined? Should it be hand painted or hand carved? What is the size of the room? To be sure, some customers do not have a clear understanding of what they want. Or, if they do, they might see something they like better. Then the process starts to take on a transmogrification, where it starts in one place, but ends up somewhere else, just like a musical composition. That actually can be fun, although it can also be frustrating, especially when more than two parties are involved, like the client and the designer, or husband and wife. However, in many cases we’ll meet with the designer long before we deal with the client in person.”

Although clients generally concern themselves more with the visual side of things than how their piano actually sounds, Losby is quick to point out that musical values are the number one priority. “Steinway has a rule that if any exterior design might compromise the piano’s interior, its stability, or its sound quality, we simply will not build it. So far as I know, there’s never been a case of a piano where the design we have sanctioned sounds awful, although, as a rule, no two Steinways quite sound alike.” This is because Steinways are largely built by hand, without recourse to an assembly line.