Herter Brothers

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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.