A PAIR OF GERMAN-BORN CRAFTSMEN BEGAN BY MAKING EXUBERANT FURNITURE AND WENT ON TO SHOW A NEWLY RICH GENERATION HOW TO LIVE
America. the industrial age. Machines, steam, and iron. The picture of progress. But also a nation in mourning. Mourning its Civil War dead, mourning its loss of innocence, and deeply ambivalent about the forces of change. Onto this stage stepped two dapper German cosmopolites—Gustave and Christian Herter—impresarios of interior design and cabinetmakers to the stars. In three centuries of American furniture, there has never been an artist or craftsman who so shaped the taste of the rich and aspiring or whose work so epitomized its age as Herter Brothers. Through its art Herter Brothers helped America’s newly rich come to terms with their success and, indeed, to flaunt it. Herter’s legacy is one of startling achievement, and it vindicates what is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood epoch in American art.
Herter Brothers is currently the subject of an impressive exhibition, the result of a collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is the third installment in a twenty-five-year program with which the Metropolitan’s American Wing and a constellation of colleagues, collectors, and friends have reclaimed from the junk pile of history the art of America’s brilliant and resourceful adolescence.
Shaker simplicity it is not. But who says Shaker rules? The persistent rivalry between modern and traditional art, elegance and excess, form and ornament, has so colored popular taste that the very word Victorian conjures up associations that still make some people cringe. It is convenient when taste leans toward that which is relatively easy (and cheap) to make. But if there is virtue in taking the longer, steeper road, then the furniture of Herter Brothers represents the pinnacle of American achievement in decorative art. Their swirls and pirouettes of virtuosity, the persistence of their innovation, and the sheer audacity of building bigger and bolder forms in wood—and every other material under the sun—make Herter Brothers the premier innovators in furniture design, in an age that took its furniture very seriously.
Gustave Herter, the elder brother and founder of the partnership, was a “forty-eighter”—the victim of and refugee from the political and economic upheavals that rolled across Europe in 1848, spawning the largest wave of immigrants yet to arrive on American shores. The son of a Stuttgart ébéniste —a cabinetmaker specializing in veneer and inlay—he planted an inheritance of skill in the free trade soil of New York’s thriving antebellum furniture industry. Variously described as a sculptor and woodcarver, Gustave Herter rose swiftly to prominence. In 1853 he gained notoriety and acclaim by exhibiting a monumental carved oak sideboard at New York’s Crystal Palace exhibition. By the end of the decade he had become an industrialist employing one hundred men in an operation that was rapidly becoming the ranking furniture and design emporium in America. Concept and execution remained ever united in the mind, if not hand, of Gustave Herter.
One of the earliest works attributed to Herter is an “exhibition stand” that, in form and expression, proclaims the emerging cosmopolitanism of both patron and maker. Such a form, intended for a room filled with books and pictures, had no place in the American home even a decade earlier. But during the 1850s Americans embraced art and literature as never before and created the first domestic art galleries. This table, essentially a glorified easel composed of sliding and folding supports, was used to hold art books and pictures, and it endowed with spectacle the very act of viewing art. The design shows Gustave Herter, the “sculptor,” carver, and artist-cum-industrialist, drawing on an expansive vocabulary of masks, griffins, columns, garlands, and shells to create a carved form of unprecedented mastery.
In 1860 Gustave Herter’s firm was specializing in comprehensive interior design and custom-made, customized, and stock furnishing components. That year Herter provided furnishings and a program of interior design for Ruggles S. Morse, a Southern hotel baron, whose Italianate mansion in Portland, Maine, provided its owner with cooling, comfort, and social respectability. The center table from Morse’s drawing room is the most complex and ornate of an array of furnishings and interior details that remain intact, a part of Her ter’s best-preserved commission. The Morse-Libby Mansion is an astonishing survival by any measure, and all the more so for the scope of its patron’s ambition. Here is the first evidence of the art of marquetry, the feature most responsible for Herter Brothers’ enduring fame. The center table was one of the significant fixtures of its age. As the hub of the most public room in the Victorian home, it challenged the occupants to rise to its level of artistry; readings, orderly political debate, and little dissertations on history, art, and the issues of the day were part of the formal life of this most social of domestic spaces. As much podium as anything else, the center table set a tone both foursquare and ornamented.
The Morse commission coincided with the arrival in America of Gustave Herter’s younger and eventually more illustrious brother, Christian, who guided the firm to its greatest achievements, partly by his own skillful use of marquetry—although evidence suggests that the marquetry employed on Morse’s table was imported, prefabricated and ready to install, from a Parisian workshop. Ornamented with birds, flowers, ribbons, and vines, and accented with jewel-like panels, the table set the standard that would characterize Herter’s best work during its quarter century as America’s reigning interior-design firm.
Who else bought this exuberant furniture? The exhibition’s co-curator Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paints a revealing picture of America’s Victorian nouveaux riches , groping for respectability, unprepared for the public gaze at their private lives, and ultimately dependent on professional tastemakers to provide a concrete expression of their material success.
Herter Brothers’ clients ranged from New York and New England to California, from North to South and the booming cities of the Midwest and Canada. Most made fortunes in railroads and allied industries, and many operated on margins of risk so thin, or achieved their wealth so late in the day, that they barely experienced the new life —the Herter life—to which they hoped to grow accustomed. More than one of Herter’s clients never lived to enjoy the environments created for him.
In Norwalk, Connecticut, there was LeGrand Lockwood, whose very name be speaks aspiration. Elm Park, his mansion, maintained today in a perpetual state of restoration by the city of Norwalk, was built for a man whose fortunes reversed before his house was completed. Between 1868 and 1870 Herter Brothers took charge of the design and furnishing of such quasi-public spaces as the drawing room, music room, and rotunda gallery, creating total environments that included ceilings, wall and floor treatments, lighting devices, draperies, custom-designed furniture, and even the selection of art objects for the cabinets and shelves. The Lockwood interior, cited by the exhibition co-curator Katherine S. Howe, of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, for its “voluptuous historicism,” suggests in the most magnificent way that the firm’s best work was not restricted to furniture making. One New York City directory describes Gustave Herter as a “decorator,” a label that fails to reflect the breadth of skill and range of services that converged as Herter Brothers struggled to give birth to the new profession of interior design.
In 1864 the wandering aesthete Christian Herter joined his older brother in the enterprise, henceforth known formally as Herter Brothers. It was through Christian’s vision and energy that his adopted country appropriated and eventually transformed the highest expression of European design to create a distinctly American hybrid.
Thurlow Lodge, in Menlo Park, California, was a consequence of the three booms —gold, silver, and railroad—that made the state rich. The house’s owner, Milton Latham, was a prominent investor and politician whose ambitions included a Napoleonic mansion with interiors by Herter Brothers, the second of several commissions that introduced Herter to California’s new aristocracy. Big country, big ambitions, really big furniture. The console in the music room, standing more than fourteen feet high, is possibly the tallest piece of furniture ever produced on this continent.
This console eloquently signifies the new direction in which Christian Herter steered the firm. His forte was the orchestration of exotic materials, and the best of his designs always reveal a harmonious blending of complex decorative techniques. Here we have carving, marquetry, gilding, and painting in polychrome and grisaille, carried out on a form less sculptural than pictorial.
Christian Herter’s leadership of the firm coincided with the emergence of the decorative arts at the forefront of America’s art culture. During the 1870s America’s most acclaimed artist, Frederick Church, effectively retired from painting to devote his energies to what he regarded as the higher purpose of building and furnishing his Hudson Valley home, Olana. And at expositions in Vienna, Paris, London, and Philadelphia, the nations of the world competed for supremacy in the production of art goods, especially ceramics, glass, bronze, ivories, and exotic metals. Ceramics have never, before or since, held such high prestige in the arts as in the 1870s and early 1880s, precisely the years of Christian Herter’s tenure. The cabinet, created as a theatrical stage for the display of decorative art, was the quintessential form of the age and offered unlimited possibilities for interpretation. Herter’s cabinets—museums in miniature—are his most prized creations.
One of the earliest was made for George Sloan of Oswego, New York. Modeled after a closely related cabinet made about the same time by a well-known British designer, James Lamb of Manchester, it shows Herter reaching toward a new style. Its rigid linearity, flattened surfaces, and intricate details became hallmarks of Christian Herter’s best work. From its delicate brass gallery to the alternating bands of gilt and black that ornament its turned feet, this cabinet is a study in the spectacle that can be achieved in purely gridlike structures. Herter’s signature marquetry is reduced to mere accents that are subordinate to painted panels depicting sensual and willowy maidens- worldly angels—floating -in a mist of gold tendrils. Installed with carefully chosen and arranged ceramic treasures, this cabinet became a dense and theatrical performance that proclaimed the command and aesthetic control of its owner.
Herter Brothers took advantage of custom commissions to improve its skills, test the use of rare and exotic materials, and broaden its interpretative range. As the form most given to display and frivolity, the cabinet offered seemingly unlimited potential for expansion and adaptation. Alas, the one described by the exhibition co-curator Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, also of the Metropolitan, as Herter’s “best and most original” has no known history of ownership, although Theodore Roosevelt’s family possessed a similar example. Its success owes more to imagination than ostentation, and although it deploys a number of Herter’s signature features- floral marquetry, carved and pierced fretwork panels, gilded incising, and carved griffins—the overall composition is aggressively inventive and, says Voorsanger, “purely American.” Here are many of the signature motifs of the reform style known as the aesthetic movement. Deliberately and flamboyantly “handcrafted,” it features an aesthetic grid turned up and on end with succulent bands of carved and colorfully stained leaves and flowers and bold checkerboard veneer accents at each corner, surrounding a marquetry panel that is Herter’s pièce de résistance . Indeed, this composition has come to represent the ultimate incarnation of American aesthetic reform. Japanese cranes, snakes clenched in their beaks, flank a stylized urn amid a forest of bamboo leaves and flowers. Light and dark, art and nature, handicraft and technology—this cabinet is an essay in design that in a quietly subversive way also addresses the ambivalence at the core of late Victorian “progress.”
Christian Herter was among the first American designers to adopt Japanese ornament. Even before the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where Japan’s displays triggered a national vogue, Herter Brothers had responded to the experiments in Japanesque design of E. W. Godwin and other British furniture makers and architects.
Herter’s first known commission involving the new Anglo-Japanese aesthetic was for the insurance magnate Maj. James Goodwin. Prompted by his son, the Reverend Francis Goodwin, the major, then almost seventy years old, demanded the largest and most ambitious house ever built in Hartford, Connecticut. At its completion in 1874 Woodlands was a vast castlelike structure of Rhode Island gray granite that included an ecclesiastic Gothic mansion with an attached servant wing, a coach house and stables, and twelve acres of sweeping lawns, a pond, flower gardens, a rustic cottage in a grove of trees, and pastures of grazing cows, all within city limits.
For all its influence, surprisingly little is known about the business side of Herter Brothers. The firm seems to have relied on word-of-mouth advertising. J. Pierpont Morgan and the Reverend Goodwin, for instance, were cousins, contemporaries, and boyhood friends, and Morgan, who first purchased furniture from Gustave Herter in 1862, went on to commission Herter Brothers for increasingly ambitious decorating campaigns.
Woodlands was demolished in 1940. All that remains is the lady’s reception room, preserved and recently restored at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. To enter it—indeed, to encounter any of Herter’s best custom cabinetwork—is to imagine entire areas of traditional craft reborn through patronage and design, sneering at the possibilities defined by mass markets and machines. In the words of the Victorian-art critic Clarence Cook, whose The House Beautiful (1878) has been described by the scholar Kenneth Ames as a “masterpiece of snobbery and condescension": “We must remember, too, that rich buyers do not want their orders repeated for other customers ... do [not] want what . . . other people have.”
Christian Herter’s swan song was one of the boldest and most extravagant architectural commissions in American history, the residence William H. Vanderbilt undertook to build at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street in 1879. This was Herter’s largest commission and one of the few in which the firm exercised control over both interior and exterior features. Herter’s original concept called for an enormous multicolor Renaissance box—the gridlike cabinet writ large —made of alternating bands of red and black marble and cream-colored Ohio sandstone. The client opted for a monochromatic exterior of Connecticut brownstone but let the designer’s imagination run free inside. The two years of construction employed more than six hundred workmen, including two hundred and fifty foreign wood sculptors, whose presence helped revitalize an art that had been dying in New York for twenty years.
Herter Brothers produced its most startling, unique, and eccentric designs for the Vanderbilt Mansion—the spirit of triumph and conquest rippled through every room—but the climax was the library’s magnificent center table, which Frelinghuysen describes as “a piece of sculpture ... a monument to Vanderbilt himself,” “imperial” and “royalist,” a singular example of autobiographical furniture: “My life as a table.” Made of rosewood and walnut with mother-of-pearl, satinwood, and brass details, the table is six feet long, four feet wide, and lavishly carved and finished, with patterns echoed by the bookcase, mantelpiece, and fixed woodwork of the room. At each end float mother-of-pearl globes, and between them stretches a celestial field whose stars illustrate the order of the heavens in the Northern Hemisphere on the day of Vanderbilt’s birth!
Christian Herter retired from Herter Brothers early in 1883 and died of consumption before the year was out. The firm carried on for another twenty years still enjoying—if no longer monopolizing—an elite patronage. Herter Brothers’ rare convergence of skillful artisanry, gifted design, and marketing élan finally ran out of steam in 1905, when the firm closed its doors forever. But in its great days the company had developed a national following wholly unprecedented by any American furniture maker or design firm. Its standard became the standard against which “success” is still measured in the capricious world of fashion.