This Herter Brothers dining table is a significant piece in our collection, for its beauty as well as its history.
The extension table was designed specifically for the space it is exhibited in today. It was commissioned by the Nickerson family in 1883, when the residence’s construction was complete, and remained with the building when they left Chicago in 1900. The next resident of the mansion, Lucius G. Fisher with his family, also used it (1900–1916).
Although designed for an ornate space inspired by the Aesthetic movement’s ideals, the table’s simple, strong elegance worked well with the Fishers’ more refined, modern tastes.
It is attributed to the prestigious Herter Brothers, a New York firm founded by two German immigrant brothers. Gustave Herter (1830–1898) started making furniture in lower Manhattan in ca. 1851, and his younger brother Christian (1839–1883) joined him in the U.S. in 1864, officially forming Herter Brothers. Gustave had already earned a reputation for the beauty and craftsmanship of his work, and together, the brothers saw the firm’s reputation grow and begin attracting commissions for custom individual pieces, room suites, or furnishings for the whole home for wealthy patrons such as Darius Ogden Mills, Jay Gould, J. Pierpont Morgan, and William H. Vanderbilt.
Because the Nickerson dining table’s surface would have seldom been seen beneath the tablecloths fashionable for the period, the only decoration on top is the wood itself. It is quarter-sawn white oak—the same wood used in the room’s wainscoting—with a natural decorative pattern that made it a prized material. The bright flecks and ribbons in quarter-sawn wood grain are commonly compared to a tiger’s stripes; they can also be reminiscent of the play of light on water.
Beneath the rectangular top, the table’s apron is carved with a simple, repeating leaf and lappet motif. It is supported by thick, muscled block and writhen-twist turned supports, which terminate in square knuckled feet joined together by stretchers.
It treads the line perfectly between formal and informal. With the addition of a fine tablecloth, decorative table elements, and additional leaves to stretch the length of the room, the table would have provided a grand setting for a luxurious dinner party. At the same time, the piece is not so ornate as to be inappropriate when unadorned between meals.