Steinway grand piano painted with images of an exhibition
Bespoke Living

Steinway: How the Piano Maker Holds the Keys to Success

The world’s favorite piano, Steinway is still the number one choice for musicians after almost 170 years at the top

The recognition and reputation of a Steinway piano extends way beyond the world’s most renowned concert halls—way beyond the music world in general. So celebrated is the name Steinway, even by those who do not play, it is synonymous with the instrument itself. A cursory look at some of the most lionized musicians past and present—from John Lennon to George Michael, Emanuel Ax to Michel Legrand—will show they owned a Steinway. For Oscar-winning Maximilian Schell, famous for his acting, not playing, prowess, owning one was a must: “When I was a young actor, in my first apartment, the first thing I bought was a Steinway piano. There was no bed at first. I slept on the floor.”

Wooden grand piano with inlaid bird details
One of the world's most expensive pianos, Sound of Harmony took four years to build. Replicating the work of Chinese painter Shi Qi, it is inlaid with 40 different kinds of wood.

The Steinway & Sons legacy began in 1853 when German immigrant Heinrich Engelhard Steinway founded the company in a Manhattan loft, less than 20 years after he had built his first piano in his kitchen back home. Over the next 30 years, Steinway Sr. and his sons developed the modern piano, building their instruments one at a time and “positioning the Steinway as the piano by which all others are judged,” as Guido Zimmermann, company CEO and president, says.

Today the pianos are constructed in one of two factories based in New York and Hamburg, Germany, where generations of craftspeople, some from the same family, pass down their expertise and knowledge. “They are special places, where many functions remain the same as when the company was founded,” Zimmermann says. “But in keeping with the tradition and philosophy of the company founder to build the best piano possible, we don’t stand still. It is the company’s innovation, attention to detail, and superior quality materials that have established a Steinway piano as the world’s finest.”

Bright green grand piano with patterned lid
First revealed at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, the Chihuly Olympia was designed by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

Whether grand or upright, all pianos require a soundboard—the heart of a piano through which the sound is amplified. In a Steinway, this is made from solid Sitka spruce, the most resonant of all woods, that comes from slow-growing trees in Alaska. The specific conditions demanded by Steinway ensure high-quality grain density that gives the soundboard unparalleled transmission, while its slightly curved shape allows it to vibrate more freely. This free vibration is key to producing the Steinway sound.

Known as the diaphragmatic soundboard, this tapered design was patented in 1937 and revolutionized how pianos are made, acting as a true diaphragm that grants the player greater control over the piano’s rich tones.

This fusion of heritage and innovation helps set Steinway apart. Core to the company’s status, it is the base of their limited-edition pianos, crafted to commemorate and celebrate events and musicians.

Man building a piano with a chisel and mallet
Skilled craftspeople painstakingly make each Steinway by hand in the company's Hamburg workshop.

“In September 2021, we launched the Royal Albert Hall Edition to honor one of the world’s greatest concert halls as it turned 150 years old,” Zimmermann says. “It features a hand-engraved outline of the Grade I listed hall on the exterior of the lid and inside an etching of the glass-and-iron dome roofing, with nods to the building’s iconic shape on the music desk and numbered brass plate. And the year before, there were the Steinway Crown Jewels, a collection of grand and upright pianos, each one a unique masterpiece that enriches not only the sound, but also the appearance of the home it resides in.”

Grand piano in a factory
This specially commissioned grand piano was built in collaboration with Steinway and rock star Lenny Kravitz.

Most recently, in June 2022, the Kravitz Grand Limited Edition of 10 model B pianos was launched following a collaboration with rock musician Lenny Kravitz. He dissected every aspect of Steinway’s construction, including the screws, to create a completely new look.

“Steinway can create any piano bespoke. A client has a dialogue with their local Steinway dealer who liaises with the factory directly. They can request materials and finishes, but sizes are standard,” Zimmerman says. It takes a least a year and can take up to three, depending on the request.

Close-up front and side view of a black piano with gold details
Artist Mark Bradford conceived the Apollo piano, complete with rich details achieved using paper and bleach, which were inspired by his time working in his mother's hair salon.

A Steinway & Sons piano is the choice of nine out of 10 concert pianists, plus of course countless other professionals and amateurs. What is it that puts them at the pinnacle? “Since the first Steinway patent in 1857, there have been an additional 135. Today’s integration of old-world building methods with state-of-the-art technology and investment in conditioning rooms has resulted in the most responsive touch of any instrument we have ever built,” Zimmerman says, “by a long way.”

Guido Zimmermann, company CEO and president, on Steinway’s latest innovations

“We are constantly developing and optimizing our pianos and introducing new technologies. In 2015, we achieved another milestone—Spirio, a high-resolution self-playing system. This masterpiece of precision, technology, and craftsmanship enables an unprecedented musical experience—you can decide whether to play yourself or have someone else play. From Bach to George Gershwin to Billy Joel, you can experience music at home as authentically as if the pianists themselves were sitting at the grand piano.”

Steinway schools

“We are committed to working with higher education institutions around the world, providing them with pianos for the study of music. From their practice rooms to recital halls, students have the best pianos for learning as they prepare for a professional career. We offer free masterclasses for students put forward on our education programs and are active in fundraising, connecting faculties with potential donors.”

Famous pianos

“Among our most celebrated instruments is the Alma-Tadema grand piano, built in 1887. Made of ebony inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, it has a carved lid painted inside by Sir Edward Poynter. It is now on display at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts. The late Karl Lagerfeld designed a limited-edition piano to celebrate the company’s 150th birthday in 2003. In 1993, we introduced the Crown Jewel Collection of grand and upright pianos. They carry our traditional design, but are made of a selection of rare woods rather than the traditional ebony.”