Modern Gothic

An exhibition showcasing the exquisitely eccentric furnishings of 19th-century cabinetmakers Kimbel and Cabus debuts at the Brooklyn Museum
Closeup of elaborately decorated cabinet.

Above Image: A spectacular Kimbel and Cabus desk and display cabinet, circa 1876. Ebonized cherry, gilding, polychrome, silver, mirrored mercury-tin amalgam and clear glass, velvet, brass, 81 1/2 × 52 × 20 in. © The Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.

By Aliette Boshier

Housed in the permanent collection of the V&A Museum in London is a most remarkable piece of furniture. Towering at almost seven feet tall, the ebonized cherrywood cabinet—embellished with incised brass, plush red velvet, mirrored glass, and whimsical painted panels—is an architectural marvel, as grand and imposing as any of the residences it might once have graced. The work of 19th-century New York-based furniture makers Kimbel and Cabus, it embodies the apotheosis of a dazzling 20-year partnership that enchanted a discerning, upwardly mobile clientele eager to embrace the ideals of Aesthetic Movement design.

Three images: First is an elaborately carved chair with upholstered seat. The second is a desk with multiple doors sections. The third is a corner chair.

Kimbel and Cabus chair, circa 1875 in ebonized cherry, gilding, paper, and modern textile, 35 × 20 1/4 × 24 1/2 in. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Art Resource, NY. Cabinet, circa 1876 in ebonized cherry, with gilt and painted decoration, coppered metal fittings, mirrors, and red plush lining. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Corner Chair, circa 1875. Painted soft maple, paper, gilding, copper alloy, rubber, modern textile, 27 1/2 × 18 1/2 × 18 1/2 in. © Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

Now the subjects of a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, German-born Anton Kimbel (1822–95) and French-born Joseph Cabus (1824–98) harnessed both mechanical and handcraft techniques to become masters of the Modern Gothic style in America. The clean lines, rich surface decoration, and bold geometric forms of their work were a draw for style-conscious consumers of the day. Luminaries of the burgeoning New York cabinetmaking industry, the two men adroitly interpreted a rich design vocabulary passed down by progressive European reformers like Bruce James Talbert and Charles Locke Eastlake. Exhibition co-curator Barbara Veith says, “They were able to synthesize British and Continental sources into something completely American.”

Photos of elements from cabinet company marketing materials.

With their knack for reading the cultural zeitgeist, Kimbel and Cabus had the savvy to adapt designs to suit different tastes and pocketbooks. An extraordinary photographic record in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum became an invaluable touchstone for Veith and her colleagues in their tireless efforts to fulfil the legacy of the late Brooklyn Museum curator Barry R. Harwood, whose lifetime of research into Kimbel and Cabus underpins this exhibition. Photographs of stockbroker John Bond Trevor’s country house in Yonkers, and a drawing of Kimbel and Cabus’s display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, illustrate how these pieces might have looked in a period domestic setting.  

Arranged against the bare white walls of the museum their inventiveness is writ large. As Veith notes, “Taken out of context, these pieces speak to people in a different way. To experience them in person is quite extraordinary.” Indeed, the longer you look, the more your gaze uncovers details such as inlaid Minton tiles, glinting strap hinges, and Christopher Dresser–style grotesques which both intrigue and delight. The more monumental designs for étagères and drop-front desks emit a certain Carrollian charm, while features like the angled hind legs of their Edwin Oppler–inspired chairs serve to suggest a latent energy within—“like a cricket ready to leap,” Veith says.

Indeed, the longer you look, the more your gaze uncovers details such as inlaid Minton tiles, glinting strap hinges, and Christopher Dresser–style grotesques which both intrigue and delight.

Three images from a museum showing various pieces of furniture from this era.

Top left and bottom: Installation views of Modern Gothic. Top right: Kimbel and Cabus table, circa 1875. Ebonized wood, paper, gilding, metal. 30 7/8 × 42 × 27 in. Collection of Barrie and Deedee Wigmore. © Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

As if to mark the continuity of this timeless tale of industry and skill, the final word in the exhibition is left to the makers of today, whose practices mark another bright chapter in design’s deeply-rooted, yet ever-evolving artistic production.

Highly decorated cabinet.

A striking Kimbel and Cabus cabinet-secretary, circa 1875. Painted cherry, gilding, copper, brass, leather, earthenware, 60 × 35 × 14 in. © The Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

Modern Gothic: The Inventive Furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, 1863–82 is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through February 13, 2022. 

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