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The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention & Innovation in 19th-Century America

DATES November 20, 1997 through February 15, 1998
  • May 1, 1997 An exhibition of the furniture of George Hunzinger (1835–1898), one of nineteenth-century America’s most innovative and idiosyncratic furniture makers, opens November 21, 1997 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and continues through February 15, 1998. The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America comprises some 40 chairs, tables, and a daybed, and also includes patent drawings and ephemera that illustrate Hunzinger as a pioneer inventor, marketer, and protomodernist.

    Highlights of the exhibition include a rare, adjustable daybed (circa 1876) from the Museum’s collection, a unique patent model (circa 1879), folding chairs, a flip-top gaming table, and nineteenth-century interior photographs illustrating contemporary use of Hunzinger furniture.

    Born in Germany in 1835, George Hunzinger began his apprenticeship with his cabinet-maker father and later worked as a journeyman in Geneva. In 1855 he immigrated to the United States and joined New York’s rapidly growing German community. He settled in Brooklyn, where he married and first manufactured his furniture, before moving to Manhattan in 1860.

    One of the foremost designers of patent furniture, Hunzinger’s protomodern furniture designs incorporated new materials and technology in construction. Capitalizing on the middle-class needs for adaptability and affordability, and on a vogue for invention, Hunzinger secured 21 technical patents for innovative table, chair, and bed designs.

    A resourceful marketer, Hunzinger appealed to the nineteenth-century taste for both novelty and American ingenuity. He used his patents as a marketing tool and stamped his furniture with his name and patent date. Additionally, Hunzinger offered consumer choice over a wide economic range. His furniture prices, which could range from $10 to $70 for a chair, depended on the quality of upholstery and staining, or gilding, and attracted consumers of different tastes and budget.

    Hunzinger’s originality went beyond technology and novel marketing strategies. His progressive designs presage our twentieth-century taste for abstraction. Hunzinger’s ingenious, pared-down designs were well suited to machine production and made his furniture affordable to a large audience. Hunzinger’s furniture is among the earliest to be inspired by the very means of industrial production—the machine. Indeed, the details of his protomodern chairs often resemble machine parts—pipes, screws, bolts, and cogs.

    George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America has been curated by Barry R. Harwood, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. An illustrated monograph by Dr. Harwood will accompany the exhibition.

    The exhibition is made possible, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency; and patrons of the 1997 benefit preview for Modernism: A Century of Style and Design. Funds for the catalogue were provided through the generosity of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

    Additional support was provided by the Museum’s American Art Council; the Louis and Virginia Clemente Foundation, Inc.; Judith and Bruce Newman; Martin Davidson and Dawn Bennett; Catherine Kurland; The Henfield Foundation; Sanford L. Smith; and Joseph V. Garry.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1995 - 2003. 1997, 195-196.
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