Barry R. Harwood. The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America. Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1997. 168 pp.; 10 color and 189 bw illus., bibliography, index. $29.95.
“The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America.” Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York, November 20, 1997, to February 15, 1998.
George Jakob Hunzinger (1835–1898) gradually has gained recognition as being among those New Yorkers of the late nineteenth century whose furniture was innovative in construction and significant in design. Marvin D. Schwartz brought him to general notice by including a Hunzinger chair in an exhibition entitled “Victoriana” held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1960. Richard W. Flint advanced interest by collecting the few surviving documents and memorabilia for the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, and by publishing three closely related articles in the early 1980s. These articles are summarized in his Victorian Society colloquium essay entitled “Prosperity through Patents: The Furniture of George Hunzinger & Son,” published in Nineteenth Century (August 1982). The more recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and the related publication by Barry R. Harwood, associate curator of decorative arts, swept the momentum of new research toward a new understanding of Hunzinger’s international significance.
The exhibition is independent of the book. The book includes Arnold L. Lehman’s “Director’s Foreword,” which addresses institutional concern with the subject, and Harwood’s preface, which provides a perspective on the research. Harwood adds a chronological exposition of Hunzinger’s career, a brief “Appendix: Original Upholstery,” “Notes” that securely document the text, a succinct “Bibliography,” and a practical index. Ten illustrations are in accurate color, and 179 others appear in clear black and white. The prose is clear, and the design is appealing.
Harwood’s investigation faced unusual challenges. Workshop records or business accounts have not been located; wear usually led to replacing upholstery or even discarding furniture; the whereabouts of extant furniture is unknown for some documented designs; and personal information is limited for Hunzinger and his eight unmarried children, several of whom worked in the firm (George, Jr., became a principal in 1888).
Harwood traces Hunzinger’s fortunes from a poor cabinetmaker emigrating to the United States in 1855 from Württemberg to a prosperous manufacturer after moving his shop from Brooklyn to Manhattan in 1861. Credit ratings reveal that by 1872 he achieved a successful business of fifty employees; the firm evidently remained about this medium size for local firms until his sudden death at age sixty-three in 1898. Various sources—including an illustration on business stationery—document his move to a new and final brick workshop and showrooms of six stories and six bays, still standing as no. 325 on West 16th Street. Harwood offers information about furniture construction, finishing, and upholstery there and in other locations by analyzing surviving furniture, furniture identified by photographs, furniture illustrated in advertisements, and Hunzinger’s twenty-one patents. Success rested on “fancy” chairs, folding chairs, platform rockers, and lounge chairs as accents to other domestic furniture. To an unknown degree, Hunzinger offered tables and suites of chairs in different sizes, settees, and daybeds. No furniture can be identified with patents for extension dining tables, folding beds, and chair-tables, although a table combined with chairs and a game table with a revolving top are rare survivals from other patents. Analysis of all of these sources leads to Harwood’s conclusion that Hunzinger ingeniously manipulated elements of form, decoration, finish, and upholstery for a wide range of variations and budgets. Some are known only through documentary evidence. One strength of the text is that such inevitable information lapses are not obscured but are clearly stated.
Harwood ingeniously documents through period photographs the use of Hunzinger’s furniture throughout the United States. These illustrations include not only the expected furniture showrooms but also photography studios where chairs were used as props. The domestic interiors depicted range from modest and substantial to occasionally luxurious. The search nationally for the photographs in university libraries and historical societies, as well as familiar archives, well fulfilled the purpose of demonstrating the middle-class context and widespread appreciation of the furniture. Hunzinger achieved these sales, Harwood reveals, through his showroom in Manhattan, through agents, and through distributors (wholesale and retail).
Hunzinger’s obituary emphasized that he was the sole designer for the firm. Furniture specialists will support Harwood’s contention that general similarity of some of Hunzinger’s forms to those by his contemporaries is a very minor theme compared to the major ones of reinterpretation and originality. Examples include the vague relationship of curved members to the bentwood furniture of Michael Thonet (1796–1871) or the loose similarity of obvious structure to furniture by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852). For decorative details, text and illustrations emphasize Hunzinger’s swift recognition of fashions by adapting or discarding motifs, turning shapes, surface decorations, and finishes. Harwood reveals Hunzinger’s personal taste in 1869 with a patent application in that year stating his preference for legs and braces with “ornamented” turnings over carved or plain ones.
Hunzinger’s simple furniture offers similarities in design to midtwentieth-century modernism. But Harwood cautions that furniture that seems proto-modern may derive from historical sources. An outstanding example is a suite of settee, daybed, center table, armchairs, and side chairs incorporating spheres, cones, and other geometric elements. Harwood credibly traces these items to their probable inspiration in designs described as “Assyrian” and “Medieval” in Jacob von Falke’s Art in the House, published in Boston in 1878.
Harwood’s scholarly book would be improved only by additional technical information. In furniture captions, the identification of woods, complete measurements, and identification of upholstery fibers, weave, and origin would be pertinent. For the text, authoritative but rare comment about construction of elements within the patented engineering (pp. 110–11) reveals Harwood’s potential for more thorough discussion.
One gallery (fig. 1) and a small anteroom served the accompanying exhibition of thirty-nine pieces of furniture that accurately exemplify Hunzinger’s career. The spare approach of beige walls and low, even, lighting to prevent fading in fabrics and woods forced attention on the platforms of furniture against all walls and the one row of two diagonal platforms down the center. The generally chronological sequence from the right of the entrance included juxtapositions for comparing variations on basic chair forms. One chair was exhibited without upholstery for frame study. Upholstery received emphasis through a significant number of chairs with original fabrics, trim, and muslin foundation upholstery documenting shapes. Wall placards offered information about Hunzinger’s career, patents, and clients. Furniture labels, pictures of related objects, and pertinent comments were mounted on posts, where they were conveniently at eye level (fig. 2). Memorabilia included Hunzinger’s bust-length portrait in oils that dates about 1880. Highlights and shadows indicate that the unidentified artist developed it from a photograph. The portrait significantly reveals that the inventor concerned with upper-middle-class taste was not equally sensitive to new directions and quality in contemporary painting. He was satisfied with an artist’s shortcut and listless result. If furniture historians could not visit the exhibition, the labels and book captions reveal that they can study Hunzinger’s furniture on a limited basis at the Brooklyn Museum, the major repository of his furniture in quality, variety, condition, and number of examples (fig. 3).
Hunzinger’s furniture deserves the efforts by the Brooklyn Museum. His most successful designs, whether elaborate and informed by historical sources or simple and relying on a sensitive organization of structural members, aggressively pierce space in a linear manner distinctive among his American contemporaries. For the engineering of furniture, Hunzinger merits recognition for two concepts. By 1869 he had perfected the structure of a crest rail and cantilevered seat supported by diagonal braces continuing as legs and interlocking with a stretcher distributing weight from two uprights between it and the seat. Equally revolutionary is the invention by 1888 of vertical elements in chair backs and under arms secured by threading continuous wires through holes at the top and bottom with tension adjusted by a nut at each threaded end. The construction eliminated the common problem of traditional joints becoming loose because of shrinking wood or drying glue. This development in 1888 and that of the diagonal brace in 1869 received patents preventing use by other manufacturers. Both constructions still are relatively unknown abroad, because Hunzinger could not profitably arrange distribution. Harwood’s research proves, however, that Hunzinger’s designs and constructions, considered eccentric and rare by connoisseurs and historians since the 1960s, were widely accepted by American consumers in their own day.
Harwood’s book is a significant record of Hunzinger’s unique engineering and original designs. His taste, as the exhibition demonstrated and the book reveals through selected examples, influenced his contemporaries. Harwood’s new perspective on Hunzinger will not soon be dated. His research is thorough, and his analysis of it is perceptive.
Milo M. Naeve, Field-McCormick
Curator Emeritus of American Arts,
Art Institute of Chicago
Overall view of “The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America.” Blum Gallery, Brooklyn Museum of Art, November 20, 1997 to February 15, 1998. (Courtesy, Brooklyn Museum of Art.)
Detail of the installation of “The Furniture of George Hunzinger.”
George J. Hunzinger, armchair, New York, designed 1869. Wood; original upholstery. H. 355/8"; W. 271/4"; D. 251/2". (Brooklyn Museum of Art; H. Randolph Lever Fund.)