Review by Edward S Cooke Jr.
Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age

Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, Simon Jervis, Hans Ottomeyer, Mark Bascou, Ann Claggett Wood, and Sophia Riefstahl. Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1994. 272 pp.; 133 color and 167 bw illustrations, appendixes, chronology, bibliography, index. $60.00.

The furniture of the New York City cabinetmaking firm Herter Brothers first gained public attention in the 1970 Metropolitan Museum exhibition “Nineteenth-Century America” and its accompanying catalogue. Featured prominently in that landmark show were an ebonized and inlaid wardrobe and an ebonized and inlaid bedroom suite, all 1969 gifts to the Metropolitan, and part of a blond maple bedroom suite from Jay Gould’s mansion, Lyndhurst.[1] After that 1970 debut, Herter Brothers quickly assumed a widespread reputation as the quintessential maker of American aesthetic movement furniture during the 1870s and 1880s. Although the work of Herter Brothers remains the benchmark against which all other artistic furniture of this period is judged, no detailed study of the firm existed prior to Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age, written to accompany an exhibition that originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[2]

As the first substantive examination of Herter Brothers, the catalogue seeks to place the Herters within a larger international context, discuss the firm within the New York furniture-making and interior design trade, and examine a “highly select and refined” body of about fifty Herter objects made between 1858 and 1883 (p. 6). The focus throughout is upon the lives and influence of Gustave Herter (1830–1898) and Christian Herter (1839–1883), who were personally involved with a cabinetmaking business in New York during that twenty-five year period. The book begins with three essays by European scholars who seek to link the work of the Stuttgart-born and trained Herters to contemporary developments in the European furniture trade. Unfortunately, these essays are uneven: Simon Jervis’s description of England’s pivotal role in furniture design in the 1860s and 1870s and Marc Bascou’s review of the French styles of the period—what Christian Herter could have seen in Paris in the late 1860s and early 1870s—shed little new light on the Herters’ careers and are, in fact, summarized well at various points within the text and catalogue entries. Much of the current literature, such as Henry Hawley’s article on a chair in the Cleveland Museum of Art, already talks about these various stylistic influences.[3] The authors of the catalogue under review thus could have simply incorporated the stylistic discussion into the body of their text and into the entries on the individual objects.

Hans Ottomeyer’s essay on the context of German furniture-making shops after guild and trade restrictions were relaxed around 1830 sheds new and important light on American furniture, and on other decorative arts, of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. In Germany during the second quarter of the century, the development of large shops, staffed by highly skilled specialists trained under the old guild-enforced, small-shop tradition and working for a competitive national market, led to a distinctive design philosophy that stressed the combination of different decorative techniques such as carving, inlay, marquetry, and metal or ceramic mounts. As a result, artistic success was not judged by stylistic unity but by explicit celebration of lavish materials, exquisite craftsmanship, and extraordinary detail. Bombast reigned over stylistic coherence or restraint. Ottomeyer’s essay thus offers valuable insight into the approaches and values of skilled craftsmen such as the Herters and Anton Kimbel. When economic and political disruptions provided the catalyst for their emigration in 1848, these German furniture makers brought highly developed skills and a specific craft-based sense of design with them to New York City.

Katherine Howe’s introductory chapter on the Herters builds upon Ottomeyer’s essay, tracking down the brothers’ early careers in Württemberg before emigration and then demonstrating how they used their specific German artisan heritage in New York City. Drawing upon the brothers’ biographies and the stylistic development of documented Herter objects, Howe lays out four distinct periods in Herter Brothers history: (1) 1848–1858, when Gustave was working with several other cabinetmakers (for example, Erastus Buckley and Thomas Brooks) on monumental pieces of furniture in historically derivative styles popular in France; (2) 1858–1864, when Gustave established his own firm, specializing in the production of baroque and Louis XIV furniture with heavily carved ornament and the supervision of lavishly ornamented interior furnishings; (3) 1864–1870, when Christian joined the business and became the chief designer, with a particular bent for Second Empire forms embellished with a variety of decoration such as carving, marquetry, porcelain plaques, and gilded mounts; and (4) 1870–1883, when Gustave returned to Germany and Christian ran the firm, turning away from French styles to English and Anglo interpretations of Japanese styles and making extensive use of marquetry and ebonizing. By noting the changes in the firm’s leadership in conjunction with the changing appearances and styles of its products, Howe draws upon the discussion in Jervis’s and Bascou’s essays on the internationalism of design during this period, but she grounds her discussion within the work of the Herter firm; for example, she points out the importance of Christian’s visit to London, Manchester, and Birmingham in the early 1870s. Her discussion, therefore, supersedes the two earlier essays.

Howe’s introduction to the Herter firm is followed by two essays that discuss the actual Herter business in terms of the shop floor and the salesroom. Drawing upon a wide variety of sources including city directories, insurance maps, Dun & Bradstreet credit records, and census data, Catherine Voorsanger provides a richly textured depiction of the furniture trade in New York City and identifies the Herter firm as one of the small number of first-class cabinetmakers in New York, distinct from either mid-level furnishers or wholesale “slaughter” shops. The latter category, by far the majority of furniture firms in New York City, was centered in a lower East Side district called “Kleindeutschland” and relied extensively on German craftsmen. Solidly and meticulously researched and rich in comparative material, Voorsanger’s essay discusses Herter business practices within the context of the economic cycles of the period, the widespread availability of relatively cheap skilled labor, and the increased interest in upscale merchandising along Broadway’s “Ladies Mile.” She deftly combines an eye for shop-floor detail with an awareness of the larger economic context. This thorough study of the furniture trade nicely complements Charles Venable’s study of the silver business and should facilitate the further study of other New York firms such as Leon Marcotte, Alexander Roux, and Pottier & Stymus.[4]

In contrast to Voorsanger’s tightly focused essay, Alice Frelinghuysen takes on two large topics—patronage and the business of interior decoration—in a more diffuse, more descriptive, and less analytical essay. Each of these topics deserves specific focus and investigation in a separate essay. The discussion of the interior furnishing aspect of the Herter business more logically should follow the Voorsanger essay and should go beyond the mere cataloguing of commissions and variety of wares offered by Herter. Establishing the types of interior decorators working in New York City at this time and comparing Herter with Alexander Roux and Leon Marcotte, as well as with the upholsterers and furnishers of the next level, would have shed more light on Herter’s role in the city’s decorating trades. Fuller exploration of the setup of the different decorative trades within the Herter shop and how the internal operation might have changed over time, patterns of hiring outside specialists such as Giuseppe Guidicini and Pierre-Victor Galland, influential relationships with different architects, and interaction with other interior decoration firms and importers would all help to provide a better sense of the company’s changing business strategy. Was the Herter interest in total interior decoration part of their German artisan heritage, or did the firm market their decoration services more aggressively in the 1870s, just after they had moved their showroom to the Ladies Mile of Broadway? Was their interest in Artistic Houses, published in 1883, part of this promotional strategy? Was there any relationship between the richness of the 1870s work and the weak position of skilled craftsmen in the deflationary economy of the 1870s? Comparison with other decoration firms and a better analysis of the firm’s strategies and operations would result in a much richer essay that would resonate well with Voorsanger’s contribution.

The role of patronage also deserves more sophisticated and sustained analysis in its own essay. Frelinghuysen briefly speculates about the identity and aspirations of the Herter clients on pages 81 and 93 but does not systematically explore all clients in this one paper in order to probe the values and motives of the self-made, self-conscious railroad and hotel men. Were they excluded by, or did they feel inferior to, those established elites who possessed taste? Did they turn to the elaborate work of Herter to create their own distinct form of cultural property, a form of capitalist trophy? Greater comparison with other new monied capitalists and established New Yorkers such as John Taylor Johnston or Robert W. de Forest (both of whom served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and both of whom patronized Leon Marcotte) would have made Frelinghuysen’s essay less hagiographic and provided a more realistic context.

The catalogue of the forty-two major pieces of furniture in the exhibition begins with a helpful introduction that serves as a connoisseur’s guide to Herter furniture: a discussion of woods is followed by a brief explication of the cabinetmaking techniques found on the furniture and a useful discussion of the chronological evolution of the firm’s carving, marquetry, inlay, mounts and hardware, painting, and gilding. The entries provide extensive documentation of the objects and their stylistic influences and include good color photographs of the objects, sometimes accompanied by color or black-and-white details. When several objects from one commission are discussed (for example, the Ruggles Morse house in Portland, Maine, of 1858–1860; the LeGrand Lockwood house in Norwalk, Connecticut, of 1868–1870; the James Goodwin house in Hartford, Connecticut, 1871–1874; the Mark Hopkins house in San Francisco, 1875–1880; and the William H. Vanderbilt residence in New York City, 1879–1882), the authors have included a discussion of the commission accompanied by period photographs of the house and its appropriate interiors. Most of these important photographs are given at least a half page, but unfortunately, some of the most evocative interior photographs, such as the Ruggles drawing room or the Lockwood drawing room, are reproduced as only one-quarter-page illustrations.

Following the entries are several pictorial appendices that present photographic details of the characteristic types of marquetry, carving, hardware, and marks found on Herter furniture. Although these images testify to the beauty of Herter work, they are not really linked to the body of the catalogue. Instead of merely providing a simple encyclopedia of some of the elaborate decorations, it might have been more effective to use the details to support arguments in the text. For example, the technique of cutting out marquetry, discussed on page 178, allowed for different light and dark contrasts of the same design. It might have been helpful to show details that demonstrated such an effective practice. Following the pictorial appendixes, Sophia Riefstahl’s chronology of the Herters and their firm provides a good succinct timeline for the firm’s evolution and activity and follows the story up to 1907, the last time the firm is listed in the city directories.

Although no personal or business papers relating to the Herter firm in the 1858–1883 period have survived, the authors of this catalogue have produced a helpful history of the business by mining a variety of other source material—papers of patrons; public documents such as census and credit records, insurance maps, directories, and period literature; and the artifacts themselves. The time necessary to conduct such widespread research and the cost of assembling and traveling the accompanying exhibition make the possibility of another major Herter exhibition unlikely for some time. It is therefore important to examine some of the weaknesses of the catalogue.

One troubling aspect of the publication is the emphasis upon the uniqueness of the Herter furniture. Throughout the book, the products of the Herter shop are extolled for their creative individuality, the result of an American environment that encouraged the highest form of creativity away from the guild restrictions of Europe. Such an approach seems to be somewhat heavy-handed, American exceptionalist chauvinism, for Ottomeyer’s essay underscores how closely the Herters’ attitudes related to the German practices and aesthetics of the period. Howe and Voorsanger also suggest that Marcotte and the firm of Pottier & Stymus offered products of comparable quality and embellishment but packaged in a different style. The point is not so much that the Herters’ work is the best or most exceptional but that the quantity of surviving works and the documentation of their commissions offer the best window into the first-class New York cabinetmaking practices of this period. The concern for American uniqueness also seems to have prevented the authors from making intriguing comparisons and interpretations, particularly in regard to patronage. For example, Howe’s depiction of Christian Herter as an aggressive hunter of design trophies could have been better integrated with Frelinghuysen’s brief characterization of the self-made, but culturally insecure, patron and discussed within the growing literature of post-processural material culture.[5]

The emphasis upon the objects with greatest artistic merit, that is, the showiest, also distorts the picture of the Herter firm as a business. The work lacks an example and discussion of one of the many plainer bedroom suites of bird’s-eye maple that come up frequently at auction and appear to be one of the firm’s bread-and-butter works. Why did the firm produce so many bedroom suites? Did the ebony suites retain their fashionable, modern, European association after 1876? Were there changing notions of bedrooms during this period, or did the Herters concentrate on that genre because it offered the opportunity to maximize the profitability of good design and skilled ornamentation since the same form could be executed in maple or ebonized cherry, dressed up with milled ornament such as moldings and turnings, and given distinctive marquetry whose negative image could embellish another suite? The Herter firm always delicately balanced custom and stock forms and decoration, oftentimes using the custom example as a prototype. The focus on the grandest individual commissions also skews the understanding of the overall Herter business. In addition to large-scale private commissions, the Herters worked on institutional projects such as the Seventh Regiment Armory and on commercial work such as bank interiors and the Reed & Barton display at the 1876 Centennial, as well as offering individual pieces of furniture for sale at their store; yet, the discussion of these elements is divided up among Howe, Voorsanger, and Frelinghuysen. Such a separation precludes a discussion of interconnections, such as the role of bank interiors in attracting new-monied clients, the role between commissions and store sales, or the motive behind Herter working on the armory.

Such dispersion of central themes and the duplication of others, such as the spread of international design—a common shortcoming of multi-authored volumes—weaken the overall scholarly impact of the catalogue. The catalogue lacks a central thesis, other than the exceptional beauty of the Herter products, to which each part can contribute in a clear and consistent fashion. There is considerable overlap between a number of the essays and between the Howe and Frelinghuysen essays and the catalogue entries. The broad topics of Frelinghuysen’s essay and her discussion of the Herter firm in the post-1883 period especially underscore the need for a stronger editorial hand in the production of this volume. Careful, coordinated shaping and modeling of the individual essays would have produced a more effective, interpretive volume that would document the objects in the exhibition and provide invaluable information on the firm that made them.

Finally, I was intrigued that the Herter project had its genesis in the 1980s, another period during which both a new group of wealthy and powerful art patrons rose and sought to assert themselves and a class of furniture designers such as Michael Graves and Wendell Castle began to produce furniture distinguished by the use of lavish materials, an emphasis on exquisite craftsmanship as a form of artistic expression, the layering of extraordinary detail, and an exploitation of historical references. As Castle succinctly put his design philosophy, “More is more.” One does not have to harp on the parallels between the 1980s and 1870s, but it might be helpful to draw ideas from the consumerism literature of the 1980s to shed light on the earlier period. Newly wealthy individuals like the Hopkins, Goulds, Lockwoods, and other Herter clients certainly viewed their patronage of Herter goods and services as an instrument of economic growth and cultural coup that gave them a group identity and confirmed their rise to elite status. Apparently they had found it difficult to crack the establishment of taste, personified by men such as William Shepard Wetmore and John Taylor Johnston, who favored antique furniture or the showy but more restrained work of Leon Marcotte.[6]

Although Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Guilded Age contains some interpretive shortcomings, the landmark monograph does provide an accurate, helpful overview of one of the major American cabinetmaking firms. It documents several important domestic commissions such as the Ruggles, Hopkins, and Vanderbilt houses and provides the foundation and the departure point for subsequent analyses of the other leading New York firms of the period. Future studies of Marcotte, Pottier & Stymus, Roux, and other firms and research into the business practices of interior decoration should draw upon the important work of Howe, Voorsanger, and Frelinghuysen.

Edward S. Cooke Jr.
Yale University

American Furniture 1995

  • [1]
    19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), cat. nos. 209–12.
  • [2]
    Several articles have appeared on specific aspects of Herter Brothers, but the two most complete sources for the firm prior to this publication under review remain a small exhibition pamphlet by David Hanks and references within a larger exhibition catalogue for an exhibition on the aesthetic movement: Christian Herter and the Aesthetic Movement in America (New York: Washburn Gallery, 1980); and Doreen Bolger Burke et al., In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986).
  • [3]

    Henry Hawley, “Four Pieces of American Furniture: An ‘Aesthetic’ Sidechair,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 69, no. 10 (December 1982): 330–32, 338–39.

  • [4]
    Charles Venable, Silver in America, 1840–1940: A Century of Splendor (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).
  • [5]
    For example, see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984); and Ian Hodder, ed., The Meaning of Things: Material Culture and Symbolic Expression (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
  • [6]
    For example, see Deborah Silverman, Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986); Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1988); and Davira Taragin, Edward Cooke, Jr., and Joseph Giovannini, Furniture by Wendell Castle (New York: Hudson Hills, 1989), esp. pp. 60–94.