Library Writing Desk
Herter Brothers, New York c. 1880-1884
With its unusually fine construction and meticulous resolution of elements, this unique library writing desk is attributed to the New York cabinetmaking firm of Herter Brothers. Various details, including the custom hardware backplates and aspects of its carving and cabinetry construction all relate to other works by them.
This distinctive and fairly diminutive piece cleverly combines characteristics of a partners’ desk with those of a writing table – yielding storage while also maintaining the lightweight look and feel so sought after in the Aesthetic era. The elaboration and execution of its carved details show the evolution of classical elements into novel abstract forms: corner columns now beaded, rather than fluted, with symbolic capitals and bases, support a continuously reeded frieze; fretwork volutes are mere memories of their arched inspiration, while the traditional claw-and-ball feet have matured into almost aquatic sculptural forms…seemingly Art Nouveau in style and presaging that period by at least twenty years. The pelican-like forms flanking the central stretcher’s foot rest, as well as the custom brass drawer pulls, all clearly demonstrate the creative genius of America’s premier cabinetmakers and signify this unique piece both in their body of work as well as in the context of contemporary and subsequent stylistic developments in American decorative arts.
A period photograph of the library at the George Kemp House – the first house decorated extensively by Tiffany and regarded by many as his most important residential commission – depicts a desk similar to the present example.¹ The three impressed digits (“931”) on the underside of the central drawer are typical of markings found on custom pieces made by Herter Brothers and refer to the project number of the client commission. Parenthetically, an armchair (our #515-I-CH) also depicted in the historic photograph of the Kemp house – and known from other sources² to have been designed by Tiffany – has the number “929” impressed on its leg, suggesting that it and the present desk may both have been made by Herter for the same commission.
1 Artistic Houses (New York: D. Appleton, 1883/84), Vol. I, p. 53, plate 14.
2 Constance Cary Harrison, Woman’s Handiwork in Modern Homes(New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1881), frontispiece plate.