Here’s how the beauty of Indo-Saracenic architecture made its way to furniture

Part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, this chair reflects the interest in Indian ornament among late 19th century Western design reformers. It was designed by Lockwood de Forest, who in 1879 partnered with Louis Comfort Tiffany, the eponymous founder of the jewelry house, in a business focused on producing hand-applied art. Their practice reflected the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction against the mass market of machine-produced furniture and household goods that permeated the West in the industrial age.

Within the partnership, De Forest assumed responsibility for carpentry productions. His designs were inspired by a long honeymoon in India in 1879, where he marveled at the richly carved wooden architecture of the subcontinent. A meeting in Ahmedabad with Muggunbhai Hutheesing resulted in the creation of a company expressly dedicated to the production of decorative woodwork in Gujarat for the American market. These works ranged from home furnishings and folding screens to entire wall panels and facades, which were exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886. Commissions were executed for leading American figures of the time, among which Andrew Carnegie, whose bedroom and library were designed by de Forest; Frederic Edwin Church, for whom de Forest designed a villa on the banks of the Hudson River; and author Mark Twain. De Forest’s home, now New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, features built-in interiors of carved Gujarati woodwork that evoke the designer’s vision.

In the case of this chair, a rectilinear frame is embellished with openwork and sculpted panels representing Mughal-style floral sheaves. The marriage of Indian ornament and Western form in this chair recalls the parallel movement in the subcontinent of Indo-Saracenic architecture, in which decorative elements – more particularly drawn from the Mughal vocabulary of ornament – were applied to buildings whose function and layout were consistent with Western architecture. models, incorporating the latest technologies. The style was inspired by depictions of Indian buildings in the works of William Hodges and the Daniells, whose records of architecture they found on their travels through India in the late 18th century were widely disseminated through engravings. Typical designs included onion domes, cusped arches and latticework, the latter being used as the main feature of this chair. In the context of British India, these buildings typically had a Western purpose – railway stations, boarding schools, legislative offices, civic structures – with ornamentation that made them familiar to local audiences.

The chair is also part of a larger current of design at the end of the 19th century which celebrated the decorative traditions of the Islamic world. Design influences drawn from places as far afield as Granada, Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus and Delhi were often homogenized into objects that were both exotic but also usable in a Western interior. The use of motifs drawn from nature or which represent the virtuoso manipulation of materials by inlaying or chasing are typical of this furniture, which served to exoticize the interiors of the end of the 19th century.

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