The French-born Lannuier brothers - one a master confectioner, the other a master cabinetmaker - took the spirit of Paris to New York in the early 19th century.
The confectioner, Auguste, filled the windows of his fashionable shop on lower Broadway with fanciful creations like a spun-sugar monument to George Washington. At the back of the store, his younger brother, Charles-Honore, made and sold elegant chairs and tables embellished with lacy gilded ornaments.While Auguste's confections are all but forgotten today, the family's legacy lives on in the furniture that Honore Lannuier made in the back of the shop, 50 pieces of which are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 14 in the exhibition "Honore Lannuier, Parisian Cabinetmaker in Federal New York."
The show is the first to document the Lannuier style, an understated union of French flamboyance with American simplicity.
At 23, Honore Lannuier came to New York to escape conscription in Napoleon's army and the fiercely competitive furniture trade in Paris, where he had been trained in the shop owned by another brother, Nicolas, a prominent Parisian cabinetmaker.
When Honore arrived in New York in 1803, he lived briefly above the shop with Auguste. Lacking the equipment and materials to produce furniture, Honore improvised: He bought 16 table legs from Joseph Ruthman, a turner. The legs were slender and reeded, a style popular in America but not in Paris.
A month later, in a newspaper advertisement, he offered "the newest and latest French fashion" in beds, chairs and tables.
By year's end, Honore had opened a shop at 60 Broad St., a five-minute walk from Auguste's. He married a sister of Auguste's wife, and they and their children lived over the shop. He prospered until his death at 40 in 1819.
Honore's early success encouraged him to push further in the direction of Americanizing French designs. He eliminated the imperial tone that then reigned in Parisian furniture, producing instead pieces with plainer surfaces to match the unadorned Federal style then prevalent in America.
The cross-pollination worked. He attracted clients among not only the French living in New York but also the city's elite: the Livingstons, the Van Rensselaers. And he won a commission to make 24 mahogany armchairs for the new City Hall, two of which are on display at the Metropolitan.
Honore Lannuier's work showed that he had absorbed a message of the American Revolution, said the show's organizer, Peter M. Kenny, a curator of American Decorative Art at the museum. "It was important to be your own master," he said. "Cabinetmakers had to establish an identity."
The Lannuier look in furniture was at first as delicate in form and decoration as the Directoire style that inspired it: tables combined rich mahogany veneers, brass inlays and moldings, and tall reeded legs or slim columns.
After 1810, the European interest in Greek and Roman forms came to America, where it flourished with a French accent. Furniture became weightier, enriched by marble tops, thicker columns and richer gilded ornamentation. Boldly carved female figures, called caryatids, and mythical winged birds and beasts appeared under the tops of pier tables and the arms of Greek-style klismos chairs.
The elaborate details on Lannuier's furniture increased after the War of 1812 as many French carvers and gilders came to New York, the best of them going to work for Lannuier. His pieces were the most innovative in New York throughout this period.
As Americanized as Lannuier's work became, Kenny said, "He stayed French, never becoming a United States citizen."
"Maybe his dream was to go back to France," Kenny said, "but he died young of a lingering illness."
And he was soon forgotten, in part because he left no personal papers but mostly because he was overshadowed by the more popular Duncan Phyfe. Indeed, the prize piece in the show - a gaming table inlaid with colorful woods to define chess and backgammon boards - was misidentified for decades as a work by Phyfe. It was only in the mid-1930s that Lannuier's stamp and label were found on the drawer.
That discovery came amid a revival of interest in Lannuier, which continued into the late 1950s. when furniture became a subject of scholarly research at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
In the early 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy chose two Lannuier tables - one round and the other square - in redecorating the White House. Both are in the show.
"Lannuier knew the area he could work in and did not veer from it," Kenny said.