Brothers Christian and Gustave Herter were German immigrants who made a name for themselves crafting custom-made furniture during the Gilded Age. They had such a way with American Renaissance Revival and American Aesthetic styles using the finest materials that many society mavens and their spouses sought them out for commissions. Among their many wealthy and prominent customers were J. Pierpont Morgan and William H. Vanderbilt.
The Vanderbilt commission found Christian Herter furnishing the railroad baron’s New York mansion in 1882. Each room was decorated with a different theme ranging from a Japanese parlor to a Moorish smoking room. It was the most important work he accomplished prior to his death in 1883. Gustave Herter continued the business after his brother’s passing.
Herter Brothers also made a bedroom set for Lyndhurst, Jay Gould's Gothic Revival house in Tarrytown, New York in the 1880s. The bed matching this suite was made primarily in the Eastlake style (see below for more on Herter's unconventional Eastlake furniture) using planks of locally cut wood. It also incorporated Japanese tiles exemplifying the interest in exotic design during the 1870s moving into the 1880s.
A Los Angeles Times article reporting on an important museum exhibition of Herter furniture in 1994 shared, “In 1875 when the wife of President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to embellish the Red Room, she ordered $3,765 worth of furniture from Herter Brothers, said assistant White House curator William Allman. A bill of sale lists gilt reception chairs covered in black and gold Japanese velvet with carved lion heads, ladies' chairs, a rosewood inlaid table with lion heads, a tapestry screen and gold Japanese satin draperies trimmed with damask velvet.” One of those tables was used once again by Jacqueline Kennedy during her turn as the first lady, and it remained in the White House through the Reagan years.
Today Herter Bros. furniture is still regarded as some of the finest made during the period. These pieces don’t come up for sale frequently, but when they do, collectors will pay top dollar at auction to own them. Suites of Herter furniture kept together over time can bring higher prices than pieces sold individually. For this reason, it is usually suggested to keep them together rather than selling piece by piece.
Herter's Eastlake Furniture
Herter Brothers also made pieces in the Eastlake style that are usually labeled and generally more expensive to own today than unmarked, lesser quality counterparts. They are also often more decorative than other furniture crafted in this style.
"Even though Charles Eastlake protested against decorative shams, such as darkly stained woods, mechanical carving, and flamboyant ornament, some of his followers disregarded his views," according to American Furniture: Tables, Chairs. Sofas & Beds by Marvin D. Schwartz (now out of print but available through used booksellers). In this way, Herter Brothers furniture sometimes "both respects and defies Eastlake's tenets."
Even when respecting Eastlake's vision by using local woods, for example, decorative flourish may be added to Herter Brothers pieces. Some are downright defiant using ebonized woods embellished with elaborate marquetry, for example. When restrained, the designs were quite elegant and executed superbly. The price of these pieces was higher than most Eastlake pieces being produced in Grand Rapids factories in the 1800s. Most furniture historians and collectors feel this exponential price difference was warranted then, just as it is now.
Most Herter Brothers furniture left the factory with a stamp indicating the origin of the piece. For example, while Herter beds are not common, the mark would most often be on the back of the headboard.
Some pieces had paper labels affixed to them, although this practice wasn't commonplace. These may no longer be present after more than 130 years of use, of course, so high-quality unmarked pieces suspected to be made by Herter Brothers would have to be authenticated by a qualified antique furniture appraiser before making that claim.