Herter Brothers, Mark Hopkins House Side Chair

Mark Hopkins House Side Chair, c. 1878–80, designed and made by Herter Brothers (New York), rosewood, inlaid and veneered with various woods, silk (of the period, but not original) (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City)

This video was produced in cooperation with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:07] We’re at the Cooper Hewitt in New York City. We’re looking at a chair that’s 135 years old, but looks really good for its age, considering some of the furniture in my house anyway. It was manufactured here in the United States by a very well-known furniture manufacturer and designer, the Herter Brothers.

Emily Orr: [0:28] Herter Brothers was based here in New York. They had a storefront on East 18th Street. They produced some of the most sophisticated and technically refined furniture of this late 19th century period.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] Their patrons were in California. They were in New York. They were in Chicago. They were among some of the most wealthy people in the United States at that time.

Emily: [0:44] Pierpont Morgan, William H. Vanderbilt, these were very wealthy American financiers, who had very luxurious standards. They outfitted their interiors in a historicist mode.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] We see this a lot. Architects, designers, painters, looking back at history, adopting various styles — from Egyptian, to classical, to Islamic, Gothic, looking for a way of expressing a modern style.

Emily: [1:12] This chair would have been recognized as modern. It’s one of the first examples of Americans interpreting a Japanese aesthetic here in the United States.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] We’re seeing those elements of Japanese or Eastern styles, maybe even Chinese, too, in the rectilinear forms along the back of the chair.

Emily: [1:30] The floral decoration, the marquetry, the inlay, the beribboning that festoons the chair rail.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] It’s hard for us to imagine how chic and fashionable all things Japanese were. Here, he is bringing that Japonisme, that interest in Japan, which started in the late 1850s after Japan opened up to trade to America. Christian Herter studied in Paris. It was there that he became familiar with this Japanese style.

Emily: [1:59] Christian also goes to England and becomes acquainted with the art furniture of E.W. Godwin.

Dr. Harris: [2:05] It’s interesting that it’s called art furniture. It’s not just furniture anymore. There’s this self-awareness of making really beautiful furniture, getting rid of that distinction between the fine arts and the practical arts.

Emily: [2:18] Also goes along with greater interest in interior decoration at the time. Not only can you appreciate art in a museum, you can also live in an artful interior.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] That artful interior, the idea was it would make you a better person. It would morally help your life.

Emily: [2:37] This chair is remarkable in its craftsmanship. It shows a real attention to materials. What you see on the back of the crest rail is marquetry, which is inlay of various woods. This chair would have incorporated the use of a lot of expensive imported wood. It’s honest in its craftsmanship. It’s flat.

Dr. Harris: [3:01] When you say flat, it might be worthwhile to think about an overstuffed Victorian couch with lots of curvilinear forms, elaborate carving.

Emily: [3:05] Much of the decoration is literally set into the chair. The gilding is done with incised lines that pierce that wooden surface. The decoration on the back of the crest rail is inlaid so that the overall surface effect of the chair gives that flat quality.

Dr. Harris: [3:21] Right. It’s not carved. It’s not in relief.

Emily: [3:23] Christian Herter was trained as a painter. We can see his approach to the chair as a painter decorating on the surface. The lighting source in the room would have picked up on that gilt decoration, making it come alive.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] It’s so finely crafted. We look down at the legs, they taper down so gracefully. The legs on the back swing out very subtly. It looks very simple. When you look closely, you see all the design decisions that Herter is making here.

[3:54] This Anglo-Japanese style is part of a reform of design that happened in the late 19th century. There was a feeling in England — and America too — that design in those countries was faltering. That because of the Industrial Revolution, people weren’t paying attention to how things were designed. We begin to see in the late 19th century this real care being taken in how things looked.

Emily: [4:17] Oftentimes, people think of 19th century furniture and link it to mass production and the use of the factory. With this Herter Brothers chair, we can see that late 19th century furniture can also represent fine craftsmanship and attention to those details: the dovetail joints, the exotic woods, the gilt decoration.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Of course, only for the wealthiest of patrons.

Emily: [4:38] The details such as the gilt decoration and the marquetry would have been added by the client, and as such, added to the cost. This chair was commissioned by a very wealthy client named Mark Hopkins, who was one of the founders of the Union Pacific Railroad. He lived in the wealthiest neighborhood of San Francisco, called Nob Hill.

[4:56] His wife brought Herter Brothers on board to decorate the interior of their house. This chair likely appeared in their reception room, that was fitted out in this Anglo-Japanese style. The house also included a medieval hall, a picture gallery — a number of these other historicist interiors. Mark Hopkins would’ve aimed that this Anglo-Japanese style would’ve impressed his visitors.

Dr. Harris: [5:17] Although we’re looking at this against the bare wall of the museum, the point was not to make an isolated object, but to create an entire environment.

[0:00] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Emily Orr and Dr. Beth Harris, "Herter Brothers, Mark Hopkins House Side Chair," in Smarthistory, November 12, 2015, accessed July 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/mark-hopkins-house-side-chair-herter-brothers/.