Philadelphia architect Frank Furness designed this table for the library of his influential client Henry Clay Gibson, a prominent Philadelphia distillery heir and then president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The veneered top of highly figured Circassian walnut is one of the most exuberant uses of an exotic wood in any piece of American nineteenth-century furniture. This use demonstrates the emerging importance in furniture design of the inherent beauty of natural materials, instead of carved or applied elements, serving as the main decorative source.
Furness’s prolific career spanned forty-five years, during which he designed hundreds of buildings and, in some cases, designed or selected the furnishings. He played a leading role in American architectural development in the late nineteenth century by creating a highly individualized style that integrated ornamentation with structure. Of his many structures, he is best known for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts of 1876. For this building, he created a vibrant exterior color scheme, using various styles of stone and finishes. The exaggerated and stylized medieval motifs, such as hefty corbels, squat columns, chamfered corners, and oversized shingle shapes, characterized Furness’s work of the 1870s and were intended to create symbolic images of power.
Early in his career, Furness began to design fixtures, fittings, and furnishings for the interiors of his buildings. Few documented pieces exist. The earliest examples are chairs for the Rodef Shalom synagogue (Philadelphia), a carved desk and chair for his brother, and chairs for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, all in the modern Gothic style.2 Evidence strongly suggests that the Philadelphia furniture maker Daniel Pabst executed many designs for Furness, including this table.
Within five years of completing the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gibson commissioned Furness to design a modern Gothic home. The commission included several significant pieces of furniture, including this table, which incorporates the avant-garde influences of the European reform movements, specifically those led by English designers Christopher Dresser and Charles Eastlake. The top is a bookmatched veneer. Coffered drawers rest below the top with lion-mask pulls in the center of each, nearly identical to those on the 1876 Aesop’s Fables Sideboard by Daniel Pabst (Art Institute of Chicago). The base draws its influences directly from Furness’s vocabulary of building ornamentation, with legs that echo squat columns with chamfered corners. Further decoration consists of carved and incised designs representative of the modern Gothic movement, such as the stylized foliated elements, owing their origins to Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament of 1856. James W. Tottis
Adapted from Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 81, nos. 1–2 (2007): 24–25.
1. Artistic Houses; being a series of interior views of a number of the most beautiful and celebrated homes in the United States, with a description of the art treasures contained therein, 4 vols. (New York, 1883–84). See also G. E. Thomas, J. A. Cohen, and M . J. Lewis, Frank Furness: The Complete Works (New York, 1991).
2. J. F. O’Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness (Philadelphia Museum of Art, exh. cat., 1973), 41.