NEW YORK – Robert J. Horner was a clerk in a curtain store in New York City with a keen business sense and knowledge of trends in the furniture industry, and that prompted him to establish R.J. Horner & Co. in 1886, at 61-65 W. 23rd Street in lower Manhattan. Horner’s marketing strategy was to target the wealthy as well as those of modest means. It paid off handsomely. Much of what came out of his shop was heavily carved, but it could also be formal and less embellished.
Horner would display furniture in his building for people to see, so they could get inspiration when designing their homes. Initially, he capitalized on America’s newfound fascination with the Japanese style by making faux bamboo furniture, using maple wood and staining to make it look like bamboo. But the line soon expanded to include dining room sets, partners desks, hall trees, bookcases, tables, china cabinets, servers, sideboards, parlor sets, clock cases, benches, mirrors and more. Horner famously used only the finest mahogany and oak hardwoods for his creations.
“There’s a thematic aspect to Horner’s work that accounts for his success and much-deserved reputation as a top-notch furniture maker of his time,” said Neal Alford, president and owner of Neal Auction Co. in New Orleans, La. “He consistently used only the finest materials and woods – oak and mahogany – and he took on motifs that buyers found irresistible: carved wings, griffins, heads – the whole tilt of ornamentation and decoration. He struck a chord that resonated with people. And he brilliantly used labeling, advertising and marketing to his advantage.”
Alford pointed out that, while Horner was firmly entrenched in New York, he didn’t let his address restrict his outreach to new customers far and wide. “Many of Horner’s contemporaries limited their marketing radius to the immediate area, but Horner made his name, reputation and furniture line known to people all up and down the East Coast and even out into the Midwest. He understood that people everywhere wanted quality furniture and that’s what he gave them.”
After opening a few other factories, Horner’s final move was a new retail store located at 20 W. 36th Street in 1912. In 1915 Horner merged his business with George Flint, a neighboring furniture manufacturer on the same street in New York. Horner retired at the merger, although his son, Robert Horner Jr., became the company’s secretary. By the following year, however, neither of the Horners nor Flint were officers in the company. The glory days, sadly, were over.
Good sources of identification to determine if a piece was made by R.J. Horner & Co. are plaques and paper labels with the name “R.J. Horner & Co.” and, of course, the high-quality detailed carvings of winged griffins, winged maidens, rat tail maidens, man of the mountain, and gadrooning. “But even if a piece bears the R.J. Horner label, it may not actually be made by Horner, since the firm also imported furniture, mostly from Europe, and incorporated the firm’s signature label,” said John Fontaine, president of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery in Pittsfield, Mass.
Fontaine said Horner clearly had various woodcarvers working for him, “for there are variations in both style and quality. Conceivably, some of the later pieces might be the better ones, if the skill level of the carvers improved over time, but I have no way of documenting this speculation. Some antique dealers misrepresent pieces as being by Horner because he is a well-known maker. But there are many great ornate antiques that others made, and there are also genuine Horner pieces that I consider rather ugly. But Horner produced some very lovely work, and this is what he is remembered for.”
Neal Alford acknowledged that the current market demand for heavy, embellished Victorian furniture – and even furniture in general – has taken a hit in recent years, but he commented, “The overall arc is that whatever is down one moment typically enjoys a rebound effect. But with regard to R.J. Horner, he never really had a fall from grace. I see him remaining relevant, steady and consistent heading into the future. He’s popular just about everywhere, and his work continues to be sought out by private buyers. It sounds like a cliché, but quality really does stand the test of time.”