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Armchair

Artist: George Jacob Hunzinger (German, 1835-1889; active New York, New York, 1860-1898)

Date: 1869
Medium: Walnut, black ash, and modern upholstery
Dimensions:
Overall: 35 1/2 x 26 3/8 x 25in. (90.2 x 67 x 63.5cm)
Signed: Impressed mark: 'HUNZINGER / N.Y. / PAT. MARCH 30 / 1869'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase, in part with funds from the Mrs. Erving Pruyn Fund
Object number: 93.21
Label Text
George Hunzinger-designed furniture is recognizable because of its distinctive qualities. The crisply turned members and geometric details of the structural components resemble the parts of the very machines that produced them. Hunzinger secured twenty-one patents between 1860 and 1899. His technical patents include ingenious extension, swivel-top, and nesting tables; folding and reclining chairs; convertible beds; general structural innovations; and novel applications of new and existing materials for furniture construction.

The patented diagonal side braces of this chair that connect the back stiles with the midpoints of the side seat rails-and then become the front legs-suggest the chair could fold, but it does not. The addition of the diagonal brace reportedly increased the strength of the chair.


Upholstery Reconstruction

By the time this chair entered the Museum's collection, its lavish original upholstery had been replaced by a poorly executed twentieth-century interpretation (see image). Several mates to this chair survive with the intact original upholstery and they served as models for the conservation of the MWPAI chair.

When the modern show cover (top layer of upholstery) was removed, remnants of the original dark-red fabric were discovered. The weave structure of the original fabric is called "rep"-a term used to describe a tightly woven, ribbed fabric. Microscopic analysis of the fibers from the original sample showed that it was woven of mohair (hair from angora goats). Mohair was typically used in the nineteenth century in the same instances as wool. Mohair was equally durable, but could be finished to a higher sheen than wool.

To complete the upholstery restoration, museum staff worked with a conservator who removed the modern upholstery, secured the chair frame, retied the original springs to attain the correct seat shape, and reupholstered the chair. Two needlepoint artists followed the color way and pattern of the original tapestry stripes on a chair in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (see photograph) to recreate the chair back and center panel. Thistle Hill Weavers in Cherry Valley, New York, hand wove the upholstery fabric and elaborate trims and fringe.

Text Entries

George Jacob Hunzinger (1835-98), the designer and maker of this eccentric armchair, was born September 12, 1835, in Tuttlingen, Germany, into a family that for two centuries had included cabinetmakers. In 1849 Hunzinger began an apprenticeship in the family shop and in 1853 went to Geneva, Switzerland, to serve as a journeyman.(1) Hunzinger emigrated to New York City in 1855 and settled in Brooklyn within the growing German immigrant population. He first appears in the Brooklyn directory in 1860, where he is listed as a cabinetmaker at 1171/2 Court Street. Little is known about Hunzinger's first years in America, but his obituary states that he worked with Auguste Pottier (1823-96) before opening an independent shop in 1860 on Centre Street in Manhattan. During the next two decades Hunzinger worked at eight different locations in lower Manhattan before building a factory in 1879 at 323-327 West 16th Street.(2)

Hunzinger was a successful manufacturer responsible for all the designs produced by his firm. At the time of Hunzinger's death his obituary noted that, stylistically, his furniture designs belonged to no school. Indeed, it is difficult to categorize his furniture according to the terms commonly used to describe nineteenth-century revival styles. The abstract qualities of Hunzinger's designs can be explained by a novel, prescient source of aesthetic inspiration, Hunzinger was one of the first American furniture makers whose designs were inspired by the means of production—the machine. The crisply turned members and geometric details of Hunzinger's pared-down furniture resemble parts of the very machines that produced them.

Hunzinger's designs not only looked forward to the machine age; his concepts of marketing and production anticipated modern practices. Between 1860 and 1899 Hunzinger secured twenty-one technical patents for ingenious extension, swivel-top, and nesting tables folding and reclining chairs; convertible beds; general structural innovations; and novel applications of new and existing materials.(3)  He utilized these inventions as marketing tools, stamping each piece of furniture with his name and the appropriate patent date. In addition, he offered consumers a wide range of prices and presentations. The same chair could be purchased in a variety of finishes and stains including maple, cherry, walnut, ebony, and gilded wood. Offering upholstery of different qualities and prices was another strategy Hunzinger used to increase his market share.(4) Although he primarily made "fancy" chairs that were intended to be used singly or as mismatched pairs, Hunzinger also produced a limited number of occasional tables, daybeds, and settees.(5)                                                                                            

The proper left back leg of this idiosyncratic armchair bears the impressed mark (inset) "Hunzinger, N.Y." and the patent date. This patent is for the diagonal side brace that connects the back stiles with the midpoint of the side seat rail and then becomes the front leg. According to the patent application letter that defends this invention, the addition of a diagonal brace increased the strength of the chair. In using the diagonal brace to form the front leg and to cantilever the seat, Hunzinger altered traditional chair design.(6)  His innovation in chair construction preoccupied furniture designers in the early twentieth century. While the cantilevered seat implies calculated balance, the construction also suggests change; the chair looks as if it could fold, but it is, in fact, fixed. The implied metamorphosis energizes the design.                                                                    

 This chair is an important example of late nineteenthcentury protomodernism, yet its design is not entirely ahistorical and can be understood in the context of stylistic revivalism. The abbreviated structural form, the implied capacity to fold, and the textile back slung between the stiles are features found in chairs inspired by ancient and neoclassical folding chairs.(7)  The balustershaped vertical supports at the front of the chair and the turned and applied buttons have classical and Renaissance associations. Although devoid of any naturalistic decoration or ancient motifs, the classical allusion of the form suggests that this chair is an example of the néo-grec style, another of the episodic resurgences of classicism that punctuated the nineteenth century.

Essay by Barry R. Harwood

1. Barry R. Harwood, The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth Century America (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn: Museum of Art, 1997). All biographical information about Hunzinger and his firm is taken from this source.


2. On Oct. 17, 1877, a fire devastated Hunzinger's rented factory at 141-143 7th Avenue.


3. The last patent-- for an armchair with collapsible writing tables on either side-- was granted to Hunzinger's heirs in 1899, the year after his death.


4. Harwood, Furniture of George Hunzinger, plates 3, 5. The two illustrated versions of this chair, identical in form to the MWPI example, retain their original upholstery and demonstrate the range of choices available to the consumer. The chair in plate 3 is stained dark brown, while the one in plate 5 is ebonized with gilded incised decoration. Although the elaborate, tufted upholstery scheme is the same in each case, and both chairs incorporate the same machine-woven, floral tapestry panel on the back, the ebonized version is tufted in silk, while the less expensive stained version is tufted in cotton rep.

 

5. Harwood, Furniture of George Hunzinger, fig. 13. The store sign on the front of Hunzinger's factory showroom on West 16th Street, illustrated on the letterhead of his stationery, stated that he was a manufacturer of "Fancy Chairs and Ornamental Furniture."


6. The original patent drawing shows a somewhat simpler chair. Hunzinger applied the technical innovation in this patent to a variety of designs-at least twenty-five distinct models are known to incorporate it. In addition to the diagonal brace, all of these variations include paired vertical supports that extend from the bottom front seal rail to the front cross stretcher. The diversity and originality of these variations underline Hunzinger's seemingly tireless creativity and enthusiasm for reworking design ideas. A chronology for these variations is, however difficult to reconstruct. Hunzinger could have used this diagonal brace at any point in his career, but if he followed the letter of the law, all chairs impressed with the 1869 patent stamp would have been made between 1869 and the expiration of the patent in 1886.


7. Page Talbott, "Portability," in Innovative Furniture in America from 1800 to the Present, ed. David A. Hanks. (New York: Horizon Press, 1981), pp. 125-30. Several manufacturers, including Pierre J. Hardy in New York, made folding chairs that refer to campaign stools with similar designs on their backs.