The leading interior designers in America from the mid-19th century were the Herter Brothers. The two brothers from Germany settled in New York after the Civil War and started to make amazing pieces of furniture that immediately impressed the upper classes.
For almost twenty years, Christian and Gustave Herter decorated entire houses and rooms for some of the richest people of the era. The designs were made mostly in the style of the American Renaissance Revival with the addition of French and Japanese features that gave the furniture a unique and appealing combination of design elements.
Some of the Herters’ most prominent clients were the industrialists Cyrus McCormack and William Henry Vanderbilt, and their biggest success was the work that they did for the White House. The greatest accomplishment for Christian Herter was the decoration of Vanderbilt’s house on Fifth Avenue.
The railroad magnate, who was the richest man in the state at that time, wanted the interior of his home to be designed in a variety of different styles, so Christian used a combination of Japanese, English, French, and even Moorish forms. Unfortunately, Christian died in 1883 and the brothers’ business as well as Vanderbilt project were continued alone by Gustave.
For the White House, they were commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant’s wife Julia to decorate several rooms, among them the famous Red Room. They made black velvet chairs, an inlaid table surrounded by two lion heads, and added Japanese draperies. Only the table was used again, a century later during the time of President Ronald Reagan.
In the 1880s, they designed an entire bedroom for Lyndhurst, an impressive Gothic Revival mansion located in Terrytown. Lyndhurst was owned by three prominent people of the industrial era including the mayor of New York City who was an admirer of the Herters’ work. Besides the bedroom, more furniture and decorative pieces were ordered when the railroad developer Jay Gould bought the house. He also had an inlaid table similar to the one in the White House that was surrounded by gilt chairs and framed mirrors.
Four years ago, the Geoff Howell Studio Inc. made an excellent exhibition of the furniture inside the mansion. Another great building that houses pieces of Herter’s furniture is the Elm Park mansion, which is today known as the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion.
The owner was LeGrand Lockwood, a successful businessman who, after he saw the quality of the pieces, gave the designers permission to freely experiment with the whole interior. They completed the decoration of the music room and the drawing room, filling them with custom-designed furniture, draperies, beautifully-shaped lightning devices and even paid attention to the smallest details like which artworks would stand on the shelves and cabinets in the rooms.
Most of the furniture was made from wood in the American Eastlake style, which was named for the movement’s founder, architect Charles Eastlake. There are many other buildings which were designed by the Herter’s firm including the Delmonico’s, the St. Regis Hotel, the Minnesota State Capitol, and more. Gustave managed the firm alone after his brother’s death in 1883, and he died in 1898. The firm closed down in 1905.
During its operation, the company succeeded in becoming one of the most iconic American furniture designers and its high standard is still the measuring point of the quality of other furniture making firms. A lot of their pieces can be seen in auctions today, although professional appraisal is often necessary to confirm their authenticity; Herter pieces were typically signed and marked by paper labels that deteriorated over the years.