The Next Great American Revolution: Antiques

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

New York’s dashing Wunsch brothers are taking the reins of a hugely important family collection of antique American furniture. Does this signal the end of modernism’s cultural grip?

The world of design has been focused for a while now on all modern, all the time. But suddenly American antiques are on the cusp of being cool again, a shocking twist in the familiar narrative.

There’s no better proof of the allure of antique decorative arts than Eric and Noah Wunsch, a young brother act whose mission happens to be bringing the gospel of Goddard, Townsend, and Phyfe to their peers. To those unfamiliar, these 18th- and early 19th-century American furniture makers—whose works can sell for millions at auction today—laid the groundwork for much of what’s now considered classic American style, as they borrowed ideas from Europe and made things their own for the most prominent families, much like a portraitist would.

At 30 and 27, Eric and Noah are the latest generation to help run the Wunsch collection, a stellar assemblage of some 200 works of art and design, half of which is antique American furniture, largely compiled by their grandfather Eric Martin Wunsch and now overseen by their father, Peter. Their grandfather, a Brooklyn native, used his engineering know-how to run an industrial business, Silent Hoist & Crane, which stopped manufacturing in 1994. Today the family runs a successful real estate concern.

Institutions clamor to show the collection, and some of it is on nearly constant view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. These are masterpieces of carving and engineering, like John Goddard’s Chippendale mahogany corner chair made for the Rhode Island statesman John Brown, with its impressive (and a little disconcerting) claw-and-ball feet, serpentine interlaced splats, and original brown leather slip seat. “We’re taking it upon ourselves to get younger people interested in this stuff,” says Noah, who goes to A$AP Rocky concerts and sees no contradiction in his interests in both antiques and hip-hop. Noah and Eric’s idea of a road trip is not driving to Fort Lauderdale but their 2015 excursion to Michigan’s famed Cranbrook School; they were researching crafting techniques to help them in commissioning contemporary artists and designers to build new pieces that riff on the treasures of the Wunsch collection for a still-in-the-works curatorial project with contemporary names such as David Wiseman and Thaddeus Wolfe.

When Eric and Noah hosted an event introducing people to early-American furniture—held at the Met and at the historic Upper East Side George F. Baker Houses—nearly 200 people showed up, most of them under 30. “If that’s any indication, people are interested,” says Noah, who lives in the Gramercy Park apartment where his grandfather used to store his collection of antique glass. Eric resides in the West Village surrounded by pieces designed by the great modern-furniture legend Florence Knoll—his interest in design is wide and eclectic enough to span some 300 years.

And ultimately, this duo is making a high-end-value proposition: “You can get a Chippendale chair for $5,000 at Christie’s or Sotheby’s,” says Eric, versus a snazzy contemporary piece with essentially zero resale value. In fact, a late 18th-century Chippendale chair estimated at around that price went for $750 at Christie’s New York this past January. The Wunsches don’t expect us all to live surrounded by claw-foot furniture. “We think nuanced design is the most interesting design,” Eric adds. “We don’t put 18th-century on a pedestal. But it’s a real option.”

 

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