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Maker: R.J. Horner & Company (active New York, New York, 1886-c.1915)

Date: 1895-1910
Medium: Bird's-eye maple, elm, basswood, birch, brass
Overall: 41 1/4 × 32 × 18 1/8in. (104.8 × 81.3 × 46cm)
Signed: Paper label: 'FROM / R.J. HORNER & CO./ Furniture Makers / AND IMPORTERS / 61, 63 & 65 WEST 23D STREET, NEW YORK CITY.'
Credit Line: Proctor collection
Object number: PC. 596.1
Label Text
This fall-front desk with a graceful arch and analogous applied scroll decoration and cabriole legs is an interpretation of mid-eighteenth-century, French, rococo prototypes. At the end of the nineteenth century, the period when this desk was made, wealthy Americans collected antique furniture or purchased modern adaptations. In creating these pieces in maple, a wood not associated with eighteenth-century French furniture, R. J. Horner & Company demonstrated its awareness of the current taste for antique French furniture but made no serious attempt to make an exact reproduction. Most American consumers wanted new furniture that provided the appearance of furniture from an earlier period, not line-for-line duplications.


Paper label on back.
Text Entries
Robert Horner (ca. 1855-1922) , originally a retailer of lace and curtains, may have made professional contacts within New York City's booming furniture and interior decorating trades that influenced his decision to begin manufacturing furniture. From 1884 to 1887 city directories list his business as "curtains" at 460 Broadway, but in 1888 R.J. Homer & Company, "furniture," located at 63 West 23rd Street, appears in a city directory. The opening of the Horner furniture store took place two years earlier, according to an advertisement in the November 4, 1886, issue of the New York Times.(1)

Marked changes in some of the city's leading furniture firms-- retirements, deaths, dissolutions, reorganizations- and growth in middle and upper middle-class markets provided opportunities for new  furniture makers  and  retailers  like R. J. Horner & Company.(2)  Just two years after it opened, Horner's business was listed among the top furniture makers and retailers in New York City with a minimum of $100,000 in capital.(3)

Initially Homer's 23rd Street retail store had a factory on the top floor, but by 1897 the firm gained a second address, undoubtedly a separate factory. A November 4, 1909, advertisement in the New York Times noted that "designs and estimates [are] furnished for all kinds of woodwork" at the firm's factory at 147-149 West 25th Street and that the renovated 23rd Street showrooms were "one of the sights of New York…specimen rooms are presented as examples of modest furnishing at a very small outlay, also as examples of high-class decorative furnishing without extravagant expenditure." Since at least the 1870s furniture retailers had used room settings to inspire customers and to compete with the growing interior decorating trade. Horner sought to attract a broad segment of the market by displaying its reasonably priced wares in "specimen rooms" that combined furniture with rugs and accessories.

In 1912 the retail store moved to a fashionable uptown address, 20 West 36th Street. By 1915 Horner had merged with George C. Flint and Company, and Robert J. Horner Jr. became secretary of the Flint and Horner firm. In 1916 neither of the Horners nor Flint are listed as officers of the firm.(4)

The MWPI desk was probably made between about 1895 and 1910, before R.J. Horner & Company moved uptown. The fall-front desk is a simple, even conservative, interpretation of mid-eighteenth-century French rococo prototypes. The rectilinearity of the desk is relieved by the application of carved scroll-and-leaf decoration to the slant top, by the scalloped apron with a large semi­circular arch at the center, and by tapering cabriole front legs. Beading and leaf-carved decoration outline the apron's curves, and matching applied scroll-and­ leaf carvings flank the large central arch. The lower section of the desk has a top drawer (running the full width of the desk) and two small side drawers beneath it. Each drawer has its original cast-brass pulls, adaptations of eighteenth-century French rococo designs. Other hardware includes a brass gallery crowning three sides of the top of the desk and an elaborate escutcheon. The fittings of the desk interior are simple-two brass­ knobbed drawers, two writing instrument holders, and a shelf with five pigeonholes. The writing surface is veneered in highly figured maple.(5)

Advertisements document that R.J. Horner & Company imported, made, and sold furniture in eighteenth-century and Renaissance styles, and surviving products show that the company also adapted American colonial and federal-period furniture. Encouraged by the tastemakers Edith Wharton and Ogden Cadman and their influential book, The Decoration of Houses (1902), wealthy Americans collected antique French furniture or bought modern adaptations. In creating this interpretation in maple, a wood not usually associated with eighteenth-century Parisian ebenistes, Horner demonstrated its awareness of the current taste for antique furniture but made no serious attempt to duplicate an eighteenth-century prototype. Most American consumers wanted new furniture that provided the appearance of furniture from an earlier period, not line-for-line reproductions.(6)

Essay by Donald C. Peirce


1. Robert J. Horner was first listed as a clerk in New York City directories in 1883. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Feb. 27, 1922, p. 13, as a boy Horner worked at Mills and Gibb, a New York lace retailer, "remaining with them for many years and working himself up to a responsible position." Horner may have been a clerk at Mills and Gibb when he was listed in the 1883 directory. By 1892 R. J. Horner & Co.'s address had been listed in different years as 61, 63, and 65 West 23rd Street. According to the 1886 New York Times advertisement cited in the text, the firm actually occupied all three addresses on West 23rd Street from its inception; the full address is given on surviving furniture labels, including the one on the MWPI desk.


2. Christian Herter died in 1883, but new partners took over the management of Herter Brothers. Alexander Roux (d. 1886) retired in 1881 and left the business under his son's management. Out of the dissolution of Kimbel & Cabus in 1880 came A. Kimbel and Sons.


3. Robert P. Lyon, comp., The Official Reference Book of the Furniture Trade Giving the Names, Addresses and Credit Rating of the Furniture, Carpet, Upholstery, Undertaking, Wall Paper, Picture Frame, Looking Glass, Bedding and Cabinet Wood Trades, January, 1889 (n.p. [probably New York]: Robert  P.  Lyon, 1889), pp. 19-20.


4. At the time of the move to West 36th Street (1912), R.J. Horner was the company's president and R.J. Horner Jr. was vice president. For several years R.J. Horner & Co. and George C. Flint and Co. were listed in directories at 20 West 36th Street along with Flint and Horner. The exact working relationships among the firms remain unclear. Horner's obituary stated that he had retired "three years ago" (ca. 1919) from the furniture business.


5. The desk does not have the usual pull supports in the apron; a sliding brass bar mechanism on the interior supports the fall-front when open.


6. William C. Ketchum Jr. with the Museum of American Folk Art, American Cabinetmakers: Marked American Furniture, 1640-1940 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995), pp. 172-73, illustrates a desk with details adapted from a French Empire prototype. An American colonial revival desk, ca. 1895, is in the Strong Museum, Rochester, N.Y.; Nicolas Ricketts, Strong Museum, to D. Scott Bell, MWPI research files. An advertisement for R.J. Horner & Co. in The Philadelphia Carpet Trade (May 1, 1887): 382, notes, “Everything, from the colonial-primitive to the renaissance can be found here.” Photocopy in the scholarship file, Department of American Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art.