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Dressing Table and Chair

On view

Dressing Table and Chair

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

Date: c. 1890
Medium: Bird's-eye maple, hard maple, yellow-poplar, caning, glass
Overall (Chair): 36 1/4 × 17 3/4 × 17 3/4in. (92.1 × 45.1 × 45.1cm)
Overall (Dressing Table): 58 1/2 × 42 1/2 × 20 1/2in. (148.6 × 108 × 52.1cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 94.13.1-2
Label Text
After the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854, the flow of Japanese goods into the United States created intense interest in Asian taste and products. American furniture makers responded by adapting Japanese designs and motifs to their own product lines. To create faux bamboo case pieces, American firms used maple, turned and stained to look like bamboo. In addition to the bamboo motif, the back of this chair had two other design elements associated with Japanese taste-the brackets and a diagonal splat with circular elements. Most surviving faux bamboo furniture consists of forms that were preferred for bedchambers.


Text Entries
This whimsical yet elegant imitation bamboo dressing table and chair are evidence of the popularity of Oriental furnishings among late nineteenth-century consumers. After the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854, the flow of Japanese goods into the United States created an intense interest in Asian taste and products. American furniture makers responded by adapting Japanese designs and motifs to their product lines.(1) At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, authentic Japanese bamboo furniture and decorative arts were introduced to a broad spectrum of the American public. Over the next two decades, a mania for Japanese arts permeated much of American popular culture.

Although a few furniture companies had direct access to Asian bamboo furniture prior to the Centennial, enterprising urban merchants began importing bamboo furniture in significant quantities after the exposition.(2) In 1878 the influential arbiter of American domestic taste, Clarence Cook, spread the fashion for bamboo furniture when he endorsed the New York City importer and merchant A. A. Vantine as a retail source for Asian bamboo furniture. In the Vantine emporium, Cook noted , "there is always a supply of bamboo furniture,-settees, lounges, stools, chairs of various styles,-made in China or Japan and capital stuff it is to fill up the gaps in the furnishing of a country house for a summer."(3)

Cook described only imported Asian seating furniture, but by advocating the style, he encouraged American manufacturers to produce their own variations. Advertisements in the New York Times indicate that R.J. Horner & Company (see cat. no. 53) was dealing in bamboo and imitation bamboo furniture as early as 1886 and was recommending it for use in the garden and country house.

To create faux bamboo case pieces, American firms used maple, turned and stained to look like bamboo. MWPI's maple dressing table uses "bamboo" turnings as support elements-stretchers and legs-and as ornamentation to frame the exterior structure and the highly figured drawer fronts and side panels. Similarly, bamboo turning lines the inner edge of the mirror. The turned discs set in the fretwork gallery and the pointed finial terminals across the top of the mirror and on its side posts make no pretense at bamboo but do complement and enliven the overall effect. The back of the chair both imitates bamboo and includes two other design elements associated with Japanese taste-brackets and a diagonal splat embellished with circular ornaments.

A number of other examples of imitation bamboo furniture, also made of maple stained dark in evenly spaced turnings, survive in museum collections.(4) Although few examples are signed or labeled by their makers, imitation bamboo furniture is often associated with R.J. Horner & Company because of a few marked examples, including a desk and an accompanying chair in the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia. The High Museum's desk shares many characteristics with the MWPI dressing table-both are made of yellow-stained maple and use yellow-poplar as a secondary wood, have evenly spaced and dark-stained turnings on the bamboo support elements, and have imitation bamboo front legs terminating in canted feet. Like the spindle railing flanking the mirror on the MWPI dressing table, the railing framing the shelf-top of the High Museum desk has a single central turning on each spindle. The High Museum desk's drawers have simple turned knobs rather than the intriguing pulls (knobs with turned faux bamboo sticks running through them) on the MWPI dressing table.

Clarence Cook's 1878 words about the use and availability of bamboo furniture appear in the chapter of his book devoted to living rooms (instead of parlors). Most surviving imitation bamboo furniture consists of small desks, chairs, beds, or dressing forms, however, and would seem to indicate that such furniture was preferred for bed chambers. Horner advertisements suggest that imitation and natural bamboo became increasingly popular in the 1880s and 1890s and remained in production at least through the end of the nineteenth century.

Essay by Donald C. Peirce

1. William Hosley, The Japan Idea: Art and Life in Victorian America (Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1990) is the most recent study of Japanese taste in America in the last half of the nineteenth century. Imitation bamboo is discussed on pp. 141-42. By 1869 Leon Marcotte, a leading French-born furniture maker working in New York, was making imitation bamboo furniture. Marcotte's upholstered imitation bamboo chair is illustrated and discussed in Nina Gray, "Leon Marcotte: Cabinetmaker and Interior Decorator," in American Furniture 1994, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, Wis.: Chipstone Foundation, 1994): 66-67 and fig. 32 on 68. Other New York City furniture firms, such as Herter Brothers, also embraced Japanese taste by using ebonized and marquetry surfaces.


2. Another New York City firm, Kilian Brothers, illustrated faux bamboo in its 1876 catalogue. The plate is reprinted in Marshall B. Davidson, The American Heritage History of American Antiques from the Civil War to World I (New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, 1969), p. 172, no. 223.

3. Clarence Cook, The House Beautiful: Essays on Beds and Tables, Stools and Candlesticks (New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1878), pp. 74-75.


4. Highly figured bird's-eye maple panels provide visual contrast for the turned-maple imitation bamboo elements. These elements arc consistent on most of the imitation bamboo examples now in museum collections. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., owns an imitation bamboo maple desk (Hosley, The Japan Idea, p. 143). A dressing bureau, less elaborate than the MWPI example, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is illustrated in Marshall B. Davidson and Elizabeth Stillinger, The American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Alfred A. Knopf for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985), p. 192, fig. 300.