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How Lockwood de Forest brought South Asian Design to Greenwich Village

During the Gilded Age, Western artists and designers were looking outside of their own aesthetic traditions for inspiration. A resurgence of intricate, organic forms had taken the design world by storm, many of which drew from South Asian artisan motifs. This was in part thanks to Lockwood de Forest, a local artist who brought forth designs that New York City clients had not seen before. 

Lockwood de Forest II. Image: Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art.

Born in Greenwich Village in 1850, Lockwood de Forest II was enthralled by the arts from a young age. Like his friend and eventual business partner, Louis Comfort Tiffany, de Forest came from a wealthy family. His father Henry Grant de Forest was a direct descendant of Jesse de Forest (1576–1624), one of the original settlers of New Amsterdam who was also one of the founders of the Dutch West India Company. While his love of art was shared by all of his siblings, Lockwood would be the only one to pursue art professionally. 

Lockwood de Forest, The Parthenon, 1878. Image: Debra Force Fine Art.

De Forest began painting seriously in his late teens, capturing landscapes while on trips with his family to Italy and Greece. Back in New York, his great uncle Frederic Edwin Church became his mentor. Church was a longtime admirer of South and Southwestern Asian architecture, and designed his country estate, Olana, based on appropriated Persian architectural motifs. De Forest spent time researching in the library at Olana, so much so that he picked up his great uncle’s love of lavish design. 

The Olana Mansion (now the Olana State Historic Site) in Greenport, New York.

After briefly attending design school (but not finishing), de Forest partnered with his friend and fellow designer Louis Comfort Tiffany to establish the design firm Associated Artists. During this time, de Forest made a fateful trip to Ahmedabad, India, with his wife Meta Kemble. It was there that he discovered teak wood carving, a local design and architecture practice in which artisans carefully hand-carved plants, animals, and mythological creatures into large panels of wood that would then be installed as interior walls or exterior facades. The extensive surface detail of these designs captured de Forest’s eye. He hired many of these artisans when he founded the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company in 1879 alongside local philanthropist Muggunbai Hutheesing. While Associated Artists was short lived, lasting only four years, the company’s founders would become trailblazers of the Aesthetic Movement — Tiffany with his famous stained glass, and de Forest with his elegant teak wood fixtures. 

In this 1885 book, Indian Domestic Architecture, de Forest was concerned that “we are going to allow arts to die out which have taken centuries … to bring to perfection. There is but one way of saving them and that is, by giving employment to the best men in making the finest things.” De Forest admired the skill of master craftsmen as both a businessman and as a designer himself. He believed that beautiful design should always be valued, and not dismissed in the name of so-called practicality. 

Teak wood chair designed by de Forest in the 1880s. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The artisans at Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company would go on to produce many impressive works, including de Forest’s home at 7 East 10th Street (now the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University), thankfully preserved thanks to its location with the Greenwich Village Historic District. An otherwise austere town home designed by architect Van Campen Taylor, the facade features an overlay of deep teak wood relief carving, which forms the second-story oriel window supported by four window brackets. Within these brackets are dramatic swirling leaves and florals, while the window fixture above contains more delicate filigree-esque design. The interior was also finished with intricate teak wood carving and furniture designed by de Forest, though most of the interior fixtures and furniture pieces have since been sold at auction. Andrew Carnegie would later commission de Forest to create the Teak Room in his mansion, which is now the Cooper Hewitt Museum. 

The Lockwood de Forest House (now Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life), with detail on the right. Images: New York Architecture.

De Forest settled in Santa Barbara, California later in life with his wife and children, where he resumed his landscape painting career. He died at age 81, and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. 

To learn more about historic design and architecture in Greenwich Village, check out our Greenwich Village Historic District maps.  

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