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Desk

On view

Desk

Artist: A. Kimbel & J. Cabus (active New York, New York, 1862-1882)

Date: 1876
Medium: Ebonized cherry, yellow-poplar, probably gilded copper, paper, modern leather writing surface
Dimensions:
Overall: 64 1/2 x 45 1/2 x 16 5/8in. (163.8 x 115.6 x 42.2cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 92.34
Label Text
A. Kimbel and J. Cabus operated a furniture manufactory and offered interior design products at their New York City business. Numerous surviving pieces of furniture, illustrated bills-of-sale and trade cards, and a fully illustrated 1870s catalog have helped researchers document the workings of the firm and the imaginative designs they used.

Today, the Kimbel and Cabus firm is recognized for the Modern Gothic-style furniture they manufactured. The Modern Gothic style, one of the artistic outgrowths of the Aesthetic movement, was popularized by reform authors such as Charles Locke Eastlake in his seminal book Hints on Household Taste (1868). This desk is characterized by a basic rectilinear outline, elaborate strap hinges, and simple ornamentation of incised lines and decorative paper inserts.

ATD

This desk articulates the Modern Gothic style as interpreted by the firm of Kimbel and Cabus. Big, bold, and black, the desk conveys the essential tenets of design reform in its rectilinear compositions, its allusions to "honest" construction (spindle gallery, open shelves, and trestle feet), and its recalling of medieval designs with strapwork hinges. The black finish, which imitates Japanese lacquerware, reflects the 1870s vogue for the arts of Japan. Simple incising and low-relief carving subtly enhance the surface of the desk. Paper decorations incorporating Modern Gothic motifs are applied to the cupboard doors and fall front.

ATD

Text Entries
The New York Cabinetmaking and decorating firm of A. Kimbel & J. Cabus was founded during the Civil War and earned its greatest renown during the 1870s with its furniture in the modern Gothic style. The MWPI desk is not marked, but it is firmly documented by a photograph of a nearly identical desk in a rare album that descended in the family of one of the company's partners, Anthony Kimbel (1822-95). The photograph is inscribed in ink with the number "378" and bears the firm's oval ink stamp.(1)

Anthony Kimbel was born in Mainz, Germany, to a distinguished family of furniture dealers, cabinetmakers, and decorators. His father, Wilhelm (1786-1869), and his uncle Anton Bembe (1799-1861) provided Anthony with his early training. After further apprenticeships, including one in Paris with Alexandre-Georges Fourdinois, Anthony Kimbel emigrated to New York about 1847. From 1848 until 1851 he was a designer in Charles Baudouine's cabinet shop, and in 1854 Kimbel established his own company, Bembe & Kimbel, with financial backing from his German uncle. Eight years later he became partners with Joseph Cabus (1824-98), who had been born in Calmutier, France, and emigrated to New York City with his family between 1832 and 1836.(2) For several years Kimbel & Cabus was located at 928 Broadway, the former site of Bembe & Kimbel, but after 1873 the showrooms were at 7 and 9 East 20th Street in the fashionable district surrounding Union Square. The business was evidently prosperous, but Kimbel & Cabus dissolved in 1882.(3)

During the 1860s Kimbel & Cabus essayed the French neo-grec style in the form of large parlor cabinets with central medallions.(4) During the 1870s the firm shrewdly developed a distinctive version of the much-vaunted modern Gothic, or reform, style based on examples set by British designers such as Bruce J. Talbert and  by proselytizers of design reform such as Charles Locke Eastlake . The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 provided the perfect forum for the introduction of this style to American consumers. In its innovative booth Kimbel & Cabus created a drawing room with furniture and woodwork of ebonized cherry, which was seen by thousands of visitors and commended by the press. The exposure assured the success of the company and its product line.

The MWPI desk epitomizes the firm's interpretation of the modern Gothic style. Big, bold, and black, it conveys the essential tenets of design reform in its rectilinearity, its allusions to "honest" construction (spindle gallery, open shelves, and trestle feet) , and its recalling of medieval design with strapwork hinges. The black finish, imitating Japanese lacquerware, reflects the 1870s vogue for the arts of Japan, a latter day medieval culture much revered in the West. The desk is constructed of cherry and is entirely ebonized on the inte1ior as well as the exterior an economic choice that could be philosophically and aesthetically rationalized. Design reform in furniture insisted on the production of well­ conceived but affordable goods, and ebonizing, a less expensive alternative to using fine cabinet woods, became a hallmark of the movement. Kimbel & Cabus also manufactured furniture in rosewood, walnut, mahogany, and oak in styles inspired by British, French Second Empire, Asian, and even Tyrolean models. The firm was capable of producing cabinet­ work equal to that made by any of its contemporaries, but it is best known for successfully translating the precepts of the design reform movement into commercially viable products.(5)

Economy of means and materials is evident in the decoration of this desk. Simple incising and low-relief carving, including conventionalized plant forms and geometric designs, subtly enhance the surface. Four carved lion heads, stylized to such a degree that they are barely legible as such, are arrayed across the middle of the desk. Paper decorations incorporating Gothic revival motifs are applied to the cupboard doors and fall front. Apparently overprinted in black on brown paper, these appliqués appear on a number of Kimbel & Cabus case pieces and seating furniture and were probably meant to suggest the refined, more labor-intensive, marquetry veneers that embellish other ebonized furniture of the 1870s and early 1880s. Motifs such as the paired birds and mice on the upper cupboard doors were copied directly from Christopher Dresser's Studies in Design (1874-76), an important contemporary British pattern book.(6) On occasion the firm used more expensive decorative elements such as ceramic tiles, imported porcelain plaques, painted and gilded panels, and inlaid woods to enrich its furniture.(7)

Essay by Catherine Hoover Voorsanger

1. The now-faded stamp appears to read, "Kimbel and Cabus/Cabinet Makers/and/Decorators/ 7 & 9 E. 20th St. N.Y." This photograph album is one of two that descended in the Kimbel family; the second document later nineteenth-century, or perhaps early twentieth-century, furniture by A. Kimbel & Sons. Both albums were given to the library of the Cooper­Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York, N.Y.


2. Joseph Cabus's father, Charles, first appears in New York City directories in 1838 and is listed as a cabinetmaker. Joseph Cabus was first listed as a cabinetmaker in 1850. Between 1857 and 1862, before he joined Kimbel, Cabus worked for Alexander Roux as a foreman and was a partner in the Roux firm for a little more than one year between 1858 and 1860.


3. The firm dissolved because, ostensibly, the principals wanted to form separate companies with their sons. The business history of Kimbel & Cabus is drawn from an unpublished chronology com piled in 1995 by Medill Higgins Harvey for the Department of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Information about Kimbel's early history is from Heidrun Zinnkann, Mainzer Mobelschreiner der ersten Halfe des 19. Jarhunderts, Schristen des Historischen Museums Frankfurt am Main, XVII (Frankfurt: Dr. Waldemar Kramer Verlag, 1985), which also cites Kimbel's association with Charles Baudouine.


4. The most well-known example is the rosewood cabinet now in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (accession no. 45.96), Brooklyn, N.Y. that was made for the George Bliss family of New York. A related example is in the High Museum of Art (accession no. 1985.317), Atlanta, Ga. Two versions of the form, one of which is ebonized, are in private collections in California.


5. Two examples of the firm's highest-quality cabinet work are a diminutive mahogany bonheur-du-jour (private collection) and the oak and mahogany woodwork executed for Company K in the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York City, to the designs of Sidney V. Stratton of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White.


6. Christopher Dresser, Studies in Design (London: Cassell, Petter & Calpin, [1876]), plate VI, described the motifs as "grotesque 'powderings,' suitable for the wall ornaments of a smoking-room." Dresser scholar Stuart Durant has explained that Studies was a "demy-folio" book published in a series of twenty parts beginning in November 1874 and completed in the fall of 1876. Thus, the published compendium must date from 1876, but since individual plates would have been available earlier, I have used 1874-76. Durant also mentioned that certain grotesque designs were probably by J. Moyr Smith, although he did not identify specific plates. See Durant, Christopher Dresser (London: Academy Editions, 1993), pp. 27-28.


7. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, owns a walnut desk within set Minton tiles decorated in black on a turquoise ground. An ebonized fall-front desk in the Brooklyn Museum of Art bears two porcelain tiles (thought to be French), a geometric plaque of different colored woods, and gilded incising. The Victoria & Albert museum, London, owns an ebonized desk with painted and gilded panels.