Modern Gothic: The Inventive Furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, 1863-82
Over the course of their nearly twenty-year partnership, immigrant cabinetmakers Anton Kimbel (1822–1895) and Joseph Cabus (1824–1898) developed one of New York City’s leading furniture and decorating firms, capturing national attention with their inventive designs. This is the first museum exhibition to trace their timeless American success story. In addition to bringing together many of the finest examples of Kimbel and Cabus’s work, this exhibition presents new scholarship drawn from primary sources to provide insight into the firm and its contributions to American design history.
Kimbel and Cabus developed a fresh take on the forward-looking Modern Gothic style that originated in Great Britain, and in doing so helped define a uniquely American decorative aesthetic. They melded British and Continental European design sources to create a wide range of furniture, and used innovative production and sales techniques to offer their wares at prices within reach of not only the affluent, but the growing middle class. Kimbel and Cabus appealed to these aesthetically adventurous consumers with their bold, geometric forms, enriched with intricate surface decoration. These arresting objects retain their visual impact today and exemplify the creative freedom, expansive energy, and complex emerging modernism of the United States during the late nineteenth century.
1. From Gothic Revival to Modern Gothic
The word “Gothic” evokes numerous associations: In architecture, it is commonly linked with the medieval-era cathedrals of Western Europe that feature pointed arches, flying buttresses, and brilliantly colored stained glass. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Gothic fiction arose with supernatural, mysterious, and romantic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). A revived interest in the Gothic era flourished in Great Britain during this period, and the resulting Gothic Revival style incorporated fanciful aspects of Gothic architecture and aesthetics into building, interior, and furniture designs.
Beginning in the 1830s, British architect A. W. N. Pugin (1812–1852) led development of the Modern (or Reform) Gothic style. It was furthered during the 1860s by a second generation of progressive architects and designers who rejected industrialization and, drawing on a romanticized version of the medieval guild system, promoted a return to handcraft. Modern Gothic furniture featured straight lines, revealed construction, and carved low-relief decoration that emphasized the overall form. Influential publications like Gothic Forms (1867–68) and Hints on Household Taste (1868) provided Modern Gothic furniture designs and advice on home decor to architects, designers, and craftspeople as well as everyday consumers. These texts and the resulting popular design vocabulary shaped public taste in Britain and in the United States. Kimbel and Cabus advocated for these ideals and put them into practice as they created their signature furniture with bold rectilinear forms, incised geometric and abstract botanical decoration, and medieval-style metal hardware.
2. Anton Kimbel and Joseph Cabus
During the 1860s and ’70s, New York City was home to hundreds of cabinetmaking firms, from elite furniture-making and decorating establishments on Broadway to small workshops on the Lower East Side. Immigrants, many of them Germans with a long history in this sector of trade, established these businesses and employed fellow immigrant laborers to craft the chairs, tables, and other objects that filled a growing number of American homes.
Kimbel and Cabus were among these workers; each demonstrated the talent and tenacity that secured their employment in the upper echelons of the New York City cabinetmaking industry. Born into a successful cabinetmaking family in Mainz, Germany, Anton Kimbel trained in elite firms across Europe before arriving in New York as a young man in 1848. He first worked as chief designer for Charles Baudouine’s prestigious furniture firm and later in partnership with his uncle, Anton Bembé. Joseph Cabus came from France as a boy and trained with his cabinetmaker father in New York. He then worked at the renowned furniture-making firm of Alexander Roux, first as foreman, then partner, before striking out on his own. When Kimbel and Cabus formed their partnership in 1863 they were both seasoned professionals, aware of changing tastes and well-versed in the fashionable European revival styles illustrated by nearby examples of their early work.
Like so many immigrants’ stories, very little information about Kimbel and Cabus was preserved in the official historical record. Extensive research into primary sources (including censuses, period newspapers, maps, and family letters and photographs) has enabled us to reconstruct their business history, explore their ambitious marketing practices, and learn more about Kimbel and Cabus as people.
3. Inventory Photographs
By the 1870s, catalogues and sales portfolios were increasingly recognized as valuable marketing tools to share work with potential customers. Kimbel and Cabus were among the first commercial designers to use photography to sell furniture, producing an early catalogue for salesmen that included more than a hundred images. These photographs from the remarkable surviving album illustrate the variety of forms and decorative details that the firm produced from the period around 1875.
For researchers, the catalogue is also a vital tool to aid in the identification and attribution of the company’s work. Each object is annotated with handwritten ink numerals, most likely production numbers. When the photographs are examined in numerical order, they suggest which objects came earlier and which were designed later. Some numerical notations have been added in pencil in the margins to indicate dimensions, and even suggest that prices varied according to finish or treatment, which offers exciting evidence of the firm’s practices. The album documents Kimbel and Cabus’s striking creativity and adaptability when presenting their customers with a range of aesthetic choices.
4. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition
The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was the first official World’s Fair in the United States. On the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—in an era marked by white settler colonialism, relentless westward expansion, and the enslavement of thousands of people—the event was meant to declare a century of American progress with a multinational display of art and invention from thirty-seven countries. Artists, designers, and manufacturers from industries across North America showcased their most sophisticated wares, and more than nine million Americans visited during the exhibition’s six-month duration. Visitors were introduced to the latest in arts, culture, and goods ranging from clothing and furniture to steam engines and agricultural tools, and the new and inventive designs on display from around the world—particularly Japan, China, and northern Africa, as well as Great Britain and Europe—would go on to have a profound impact on American artistic development.
The Centennial Exhibition presented a major opportunity for Kimbel and Cabus to promote their work to new audiences, and they rose to the occasion with an ambitious display. Their firm captivated visitors (and the exhibition judges) with a fully furnished drawing room in the Modern Gothic style, standing out from the other U.S. furniture exhibitors and securing their fame. Although they were a thriving firm prior to the Centennial, their success at the fair generated national and international publicity that marked a high point in their partnership. In the years following, they secured multiple commissions for private and public interiors, and the firm would go on to become synonymous with Modern Gothic furnishings in the United States.
5. A Parade of Forms
Kimbel and Cabus drew from many different design sources to create distinctive furniture with striking forms and ornamentation. In the home, display of such forward-looking objects signaled the owner’s aesthetic and cultural sophistication. Many of Kimbel and Cabus’s chair designs incorporate dynamic angled legs, mortise-and-tenon joinery, and clean lines. Book and music stands with quirky structural silhouettes served as fashionable and functional accent pieces. Typically, these smaller objects were decorated with paper panels that featured a range of motifs based on British, Continental European, and occasionally Asian designs. Less expensive than marquetry or ceramic tiles, the paper panels ensured that Kimbel and Cabus could produce Modern Gothic options at various price points and create almost limitless decorations, attracting a wide range of customers with their innovative aesthetic.
6. Commissions and Clientele
Just four years into their partnership, Kimbel and Cabus advertised in 1867 as “Cabinet Makers and Decorators” who routinely provided room designs on request. Nearly a decade later, their drawing-room display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 attested to their achievement as masters of domestic interior decoration. Because few of their private commissions are known to survive, just two of Kimbel and Cabus’s prominent public commissions—for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1873–75 and the Seventh Regiment Armory (known today as the Park Avenue Armory) in 1879–80—have defined contemporary thinking about the firm’s work as decorators who were adept at undertaking large-scale interior projects in the latest styles.
However, recent research has uncovered a cache of design drawings by Kimbel and Cabus for furnishings and interiors in domestic settings at the Kunstbibliothek in Berlin, Germany. Close study of the period illustrations, paintings, and photographs of interiors have helped scholars to identify private spaces that featured Kimbel and Cabus’s work. These primary sources offer insight into their approach to conceiving and furnishing interiors, as well as the scope of their business, and reveal how the firm appealed to New York City’s prosperous and aesthetically adventurous doctors, merchants, stockbrokers, and other members of the burgeoning upper middle class.
7. A Modern Gothic Interior
During the 1870s—with the dramatic growth of the middle class as a result of industrialization and following the Civil War—a much larger percentage of the U.S. population had newfound time and resources to pursue art and leisure. Newly prosperous New Yorkers cultivated an interest in home decoration modeled on the recommendations of designers and theorists such as Bruce James Talbert and Charles Locke Eastlake. These authors promoted functionality, decorative restraint, harmonious interiors, and the idea that art should be integrated into all aspects of life. For their homes, forward-looking consumers chose Modern Gothic furniture, such as the Kimbel and Cabus armchair, pedestal, and hanging wall cabinet seen here, as well as ceramics and glass, metalwork, textiles, and wallpaper in the latest styles.
To see another example of one of these “artistic” interiors, visit the Gilded Age Reception Room in the Decorative Arts galleries on the fourth floor, which was designed by competitor firm George A. Schastey for the New York City residence of Arabella Worsham-Rockefeller.
8. Inventive Variation
Three versions of the same étagère (a form with open shelves) illustrate the inventive way Kimbel and Cabus recombined shape and ornament to create variety for their customers. These forward-looking forms were intended for the display of art objects and books, which taken together demonstrated an aesthetically adventurous owner’s cultural refinement. These étagères display clean, rectilinear lines punctuated by pointed projections, carved animal masks, incised lines, and geometric motifs. The use of “ebonizing,” a process of blackening the wood surface to imitate Asian lacquer, conveys a luxurious and fashionable finish. Kimbel and Cabus used Minton and Company tiles on one version; a second features printed-paper panels inspired by British designer Christopher Dresser’s “grotesques” (figures displaying humorous or fantastic distortion); and a third has ceramic tiles by British maker W. B. Simpson and Sons. All three étagères display variations of elaborate hardware, with brass on the ebonized versions and nickel-plated metal on the walnut version. The range of decorative techniques and materials indicates the variety of price points and consumer preferences that Kimbel and Cabus were able to meet.
9. Masterpieces of Modern Gothic
From monumental desks to dramatic ebonized cabinets, Kimbel and Cabus specialized in richly ornamented case pieces that served dual purposes: as functional objects and as status symbols in fashionable upper middle-class drawing rooms, parlors, or libraries. In these social circles a person’s understanding of the world, and their place in it, was revealed by the things they displayed in their home. To display a cabinet like this, then, suggested a daring attitude and a striving to reinvent old ideals for a new era. These architectonic objects have the presence of small buildings, complete with castlelike elements such as gables, balustrades, and capitals, as well as columns and doors. The form is further enhanced with carved floral, vegetal, animal, and geometric ornaments as well as incised surface decoration, many times picked out with luminous gilding to complement the overall structure. Kimbel and Cabus further embellished their furniture with all manner of ceramic tiles, painted panels, embossed leather and textiles, and bold brass hardware procured from specialized makers and retailers. Enriched with dazzling assemblages of ornament in multiple mediums, the uniquely creative forms in this gallery represent Kimbel and Cabus at the peak of their success.
April 1, 2021
Featuring over sixty objects, the exhibition is the first to examine the enterprising New York City design team who pioneered a new take on Modern Gothic furniture and defined a significant aesthetic in the post–Civil War United States
Over the course of their remarkable nearly-twenty-year partnership, immigrant cabinetmakers Anton Kimbel (1822–1895) and Joseph Cabus (1824–1898) transformed their business into a leading New York City furniture and decorating firm, and defined a new take on Modern Gothic design for the post–Civil War United States. Modern Gothic: The Inventive Furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, 1863–82 is the first museum exhibition to trace their timeless American success story, presenting new scholarship and fresh insight into the history of the enterprising design team. Over sixty objects will be on view, including forty pieces of furniture as well as digitized period photographs, books, a painting, and ephemera that illustrate Kimbel and Cabus's inventive design in a variety of contexts. The exhibition is on view from July 2, 2021, to February 13, 2022, and is curated by guest curator Barbara Veith in consultation with Medill H. Harvey, Ruth Bigelow Wriston Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts and Manager of the Henry R. Luce Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Shea Spiller, Curatorial Assistant, Arts of the Americas and Europe, Brooklyn Museum.
"The Brooklyn Museum retains the largest institutional holdings of furniture made by Kimbel and Cabus thanks to (the late) Dr. Barry R. Harwood and his keen eye for innovative nineteenth century furniture," says Barbara Veith. "We honor his legacy with this long-planned exhibition. Thanks to the enthusiastic support of institutional and private lenders, we have assembled many of the finest examples of Kimbel and Cabus's work, and present new research drawn from primary resources that enriches our understanding of the firm's contributions to the history of design in the United States."
Kimbel and Cabus were early advocates of Modern Gothic design reform ideals. The word "Gothic" evokes numerous associations, especially the architecture of Western European cathedrals built in the twelfth through sixteenth century, which included pointed arches, flying buttresses, and brilliantly colored stained glass. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a revival of interest in the Gothic in Britain, and fanciful aspects of Gothic architecture were initially incorporated into building, interior, and furniture designs. Modern Gothic—as a later iteration of what came to be known as the Gothic Revival style—emerged in the 1830s in Europe and was promoted during the 1860s by a generation of progressive architects and designers who rejected industrialization and advocated a return to handcraft.
These design reforms gained popularity in the United States during the post–Civil War period, as a growing middle class gained time and resources for artistic and leisure pursuits. Like many families today striving to craft identity through material goods and home decoration, those with progressive taste looked to new and exciting styles and embraced the Modern Gothic aesthetic.
In 1870s New York City, Kimbel and Cabus synthesized British and continental European design sources to produce a wealth of Modern Gothic furniture forms that combined bold, clean lines with rich surface decoration. Unlike some of their competitors who catered to the societal elite, Kimbel and Cabus designed their wares at different price points in order to appeal to a broad range of customers. Drawing on primary sources such as censuses, credit reports, city directories, newspapers, and photographs, the exhibition presents illuminating new research tracing Kimbel and Cabus's business history, marketing practices, furniture forms, clientele, and commissions. The insights gleaned from these sources have informed the Brooklyn Museum's efforts in mounting the exhibition, such as the re-creation of a period-appropriate textile, with which conservators reupholstered the Museum's corner chair.
The exhibition is organized in a series of nine thematic groupings that trace the partnership of Anton Kimbel and Joseph Cabus from 1863 to 1882, and their impact on the Modern Gothic style of the nineteenth century. Beginning with an introduction to Gothic Revival and its later manifestation as the Modern Gothic style, the exhibition opens with early furniture forms designed by Kimbel and Cabus, as well as a rare album of digitized nineteenth-century photographs that demonstrate the wide range of forms produced by the firm. Particular attention is paid to Kimbel and Cabus's critical success at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which boosted their fame across the United States, with associated texts and ephemera accompanied by enlarged images of their magnificent Centennial display. A variety of the firm's quirky, smaller Modern Gothic forms will also be on view, with richly decorated with paper panels that depict medieval style figural, geometric, or abstract botanical motifs, plus a vignette (room setting) that the Museum created based on period illustrations to demonstrate Kimbel and Cabus's furniture in context with appropriate décor. The final gallery highlights Modern Gothic masterpieces, including monumental desks and dramatic ebonized cabinets, that epitomize the firm's work at the peak of their success.
The exhibition honors Dr. Barry R. Harwood, late Curator of Decorative Arts. Dr. Harwood joined the Brooklyn Museum in 1988 and dedicated the ensuing 30 years to developing the Museum's Decorative Arts holdings. At the time of his death, he was conducting research for a planned book on the work of Kimbel and Cabus.
A fully illustrated catalogue co-published with Hirmer Press will accompany the exhibition. The publication is co-authored by Barbara Veith, Guest Curator, Brooklyn Museum, and Medill H. Harvey, Ruth Bigelow Wriston Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts and Manager of the Henry R. Luce Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with additional contributions by Max Donnelly, Curator of Nineteenth Century Furniture, Victoria and Albert Museum; Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Dr. Melitta Jonas, art historian, Berlin.
Modern Gothic: The Inventive Furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, 1863-82 View Original