Update: The George Hunzinger chair sold for $1,750.
What you see: A George Hunzinger chair made from beech wood and dating to 1869. Wright estimates it at $1,000 to $1,500.
The expert: Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright.
Who was George Hunzinger? He was born in Germany and came from a family of cabinetmakers. When he came to the U.S., he mostly lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He was a pretty unconventional designer with a unique aesthetic that he paired with technical innovations made possible in the 19th century.
Do we know how old he was when he came over from Germany? He was about 20 years old.
And I take it his family taught him how to make furniture? It’s assumed. There’s not a lot of information, to be honest, but it was a family craft.
Do most or all of Hunzinger’s furnishings look like this chair, or did his style evolve from something more traditional to what we see here? All his hallmark designs were made in the U.S.
And he would have worked in New York City? He was in Brooklyn in the 1860s and moved to Manhattan. It was a pivotal move. His business was taking off, and it definitely accelerated after the move. He had as many as 50 people working for him at the apex of his career.
How prolific was George Hunzinger? Has anyone attempted a count of his works? Unfortunately, that information is lost. What’s distinct about Hunzinger’s work is he applied for patents–he had 21 patents on his designs. It’s rare for a 19th century furniture maker to have 21 patents to his name, and to have an unusual and eclectic style that sets him apart.
Did Hunzinger have a patent on this chair that you’re offering? There’s an actual patent for the 1869 chair. He made very small changes, but it’s almost exactly [like] the patent in its details.
What does the patent application or patent paperwork tell us about this George Hunzinger chair? It doesn’t really tell us about the chair, it’s more that he went ahead and got the patent. That set him apart from his contemporaries. The chair has a mark on it that notes the patent. Marking the chair with that information shows it’s something [he’s] proud of.
Does George Hunzinger’s work change over the course of his career? Are there clear phases? Not really. This [the style that we see in this chair] was an aesthetic that carried through his career. To my eye, what defines the differences in the pieces is his clear experimentation with technique and certain structural elements within the chair itself. It set his chairs very far apart from what was being done by his contemporaries.
Was George Hunzinger’s furniture appreciated in his time, or only later on? It’s hard to say. The documentation we can see shows that he had a successful business.
Was this George Hunzinger chair a one-off? There’s no question some chairs were made in multiples, and he made distinct chairs as well. There have been other forms of this chair at auction previously.
The lot information for the George Hunzinger chair describes it simply as a “chair”. Where would it have gone within a house? I’m guessing this wasn’t meant to be placed at a dining room table… There’s not a lot of information to that end. Though it’s radical in its stylistic sensibility, it was functional furniture. But I don’t think it was a chair for everyday [use].
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this George Hunzinger chair was to make? When you look at the form itself, you see really intricate construction details in it. I would think it’s a very hard piece to produce. A lot of hallmarks of his innovative designs are included, such as the diagonal legs and the rounded crest rail at the top.
Much of the George Hunzinger chair’s frame looks like metal piping translated into wood. Yes, a lot of that is that steel element and joinery to make the concept a reality.
Steel element? He would introduce steel wiring in his furniture’s construction, and allow things that traditional joinery would not have. The overall construction and aesthetic was made possible by innovations he experimented with. He was doing things none of his contemporaries tried.
What is the George Hunzinger chair like in person? Unfortunately, because of [COVID-19-related] travel restrictions, I haven’t seen this chair firsthand. I can say the camera captures the delicacy of the form. Its most captivating feature is the intricacy of the design. There’s so much detail in the frame of the chair and all the elements of the chair. Not one part hasn’t been fully thought through.
I realize you haven’t had the chance to sit in this George Hunzinger chair, but have you sat in others made by him? I’ve never had the opportunity to sit in one. I’ve witnessed them and looked at them, but never had the opportunity to sit.
How often do George Hunzinger pieces show up at auction? Once a year? Or sometimes more than that. They appear pretty regularly on the auction market in varying degrees of originality and what’s been done to them.
I take it that the upholstery on the George Hunzinger chair is not the original upholstery, yes? Not in any way. It’s later upholstery, but it’s pretty common not to have the original upholstery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum have George Hunzinger furnishings with original upholstery. It’s as intricate and rich as the detailing of the frame.
The George Hunzinger chair is part of a sale drawn from the collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy, who were noted for their mid-century material. How does this piece fit their aesthetic? What’s really interesting about this chair is how atypical it is in the collection, but that’s what makes the collection so special. Mark Isaacson liked to include works across disciplines. He had an extraordinary eye.
How have you seen the market for George Hunzinger furniture change over time? During my career, the market for American aesthetic furniture was highly collectible in the 80s and 90s. Now we’re seeing more at auction.
Why do you think that is? I think people are looking at the material differently than they did 10 years ago. A lot of scholarly work has been done recently, and they appreciate its modernity. It’s outside of our concept of Victorian furniture.
Do we know what the world auction record is for a piece of George Hunzinger furniture? I’ve seen individual chairs go for $10,000.
Why will this George Hunzinger chair stick in your memory? For me, this chair is about Mark Isaacson and his vision as a collector. As a young specialist in the field, I went back to the Fifty/50 collection [the gallery Isaacson founded in New York in 1981]. It defined what collecting 20th century arts was at the time. There are some true masterworks in the collection, and we get to celebrate its full story.
Images are courtesy of Wright.
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