Trained as a cabinetmaker in his native Bohemia, Wenzel Friedrich immigrated to the United States in 1853, settling in San Antonio, Texas, and opening a revival-style furniture business. In 1880, he became more innovative, realizing the potential of the Texan stockyards’ abundant supply of Texas Longhorn cattle horns as a material for use in furniture design. In Europe, antlers, horns, and other emblems of the hunt were used as decor as early as the 1400s, with horn seating furniture popular in the 1800s. It is likely Friedrich had seen horn furniture first-hand in Europe or in publications from international exhibitions, where it was also shown.

Friedrich used boiling water to soften the raw material’s exterior surfaces, which were then scraped, cleaned, dried in the sun, and buffed. Heating the horn also made it pliable, allowing the furniture maker to create exaggerated curves for his various tables, settees, hat racks, and benches.

Friedrich’s Longhorn furniture fulfilled a Victorian desire for the unusual as well as symbolized the “Wild West,” where ideas of Manifest Destiny and the desire for control over nature and animals proliferated. Friedrich’s horn furniture was popular in local male-dominated taverns, smoking rooms, and bordellos, but was also used in more sophisticated settings overseas—England’s Queen Victoria even owned a piece.

This chair is currently on view Nature by Design: Plastics.

Rebecca McNamara is a graduate of the History of Decorative Arts and Design program run jointly by Cooper Hewitt and Parsons School of Design. She is currently the Mellon Collections Curator at The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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