Friday, October 01, 2004

Biography of George Hunzinger

George Jacob Hunzinger (1835 – 1898)

George Hunzinger (1835-1898) was one of only a few furniture makers in the Victorian era whose designs were not derived from historical styles or fashion, but rather from an emerging vision of the modern era, with forms reflecting functional, mechanical influences which would characterize American design in the century to come.

George Hunzinger was born in Germany in 1835 to a family which had been cabinetmakers since the 17th century. He emigrated to New York at the age of 20, already trained as a furniture maker; one of many German cabinetmakers, including the Herter Brothers, who came to the United States to flee the political and economic turmoil in Germany after 1848.

Hunzinger came to a country preoccupied with the latest technology and inventions, where new machines and labor saving devices were patented daily. He was a prolific inventor himself, and became a leader in the "patent furniture" industry. From 1860 to his death in 1898, he was awarded 21 patents for furniture inventions, including extension tables, swivel top and nesting tables, reclining and folding chairs, convertible beds, platform rockers and an innovative woven seat made of fabric covered braided steel wire.

His propensity to think of furniture design as a question of engineering, rather than a question of style, separated his work from that of his contemporaries. One of his earliest patents was for a Side Chair with a diagonal brace that connected the crest rail to the side of the seat and continued down to form the front leg. This new furniture form with a cantilevered seat was similar in appearance to a Folding Chair he would patent four years later, in 1873.

Both chairs have arms, legs and stretchers turned on a lathe and suitable for mass production. In addition, the chair's decorative elements are interchangeable parts, made of simple turnings and arranged as an abstract version of the elaborate decorative carving found on the more traditional Victorian designs of his competitors.

In Hunzinger's work, the means of production provided the primary source of inspiration for the design. His reliance on fabrication methods as a source of design inspiration is similar to that of another German furniture maker working at the time, Michael Thonet, whose bent wood chairs took their form from the steam bending process which he pioneered.

Hunzinger and Thonet also shared a modern attitude toward sales and marketing, establishing a network of remote sales offices and agents and widely distributing catalogues of their designs to promote sales far beyond the geographic area of their production facilities.

Hunzinger developed a marketing strategy which offered the same piece of furniture in a variety of woods, finishes and upholstery to appeal to a broad range of customers. At the low end, an unstained maple chair with his patented woven wire mesh seat sold for $30. An elaborately upholstered and brocaded version of the same chair, ebonized and gilded, would sell for many times that price.



From:

The Furniture of George Hunzinger, Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth Century America
Barry R, Harwood, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 1997.
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