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The New Antiquarians

The Wunsch brothers embrace revolutionary design from all eras

Written by Ted Loos

When someone tells you they practically grew up in a museum, usually it’s an overstatement for effect. But not so for New York–based brothers Eric and Noah Wunsch.

Shipshape. Brothers Eric and Noah Wunsch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's third-floor "Meetinghouse Gallery" which evokes the 1681 Old Ship Church (meeting house) in Hingham, Massachusetts. The room features colonial portraits and William and Mary furnishings popular between 1650 and 1725.  Photo: Matthew Benson

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not only does some of the finest early American furniture say WUNSCH on the label—it was largely collected by their late grandfather, Eric M. Wunsch—but these young collectors and design devotees feel perfectly at home, while also radiating a respect for the genius of the place.

Their affection for it is real, and so is their knowledge, as Traditional Home readers will discover going forward, with their contributions on what’s catching their eye in design these days.

As they stroll through the Met, Noah, 26, enthuses, “We came here on the weekends with our grandfather. He didn’t walk in and tell us what to focus on: He let us roam around. I was all about the arms and armour—we were just little kids.”

Their grandmother was the Met’s head docent, and when they check in at the Member’s Desk one day over the summer, the woman recognizes their surname and realizes who they are, adding, “Say hello to Ethel.” For the Wunsches, appreciating art and design is truly a family affair.

The Wunsch family's mission is to excite young people about art and design from all eras. From left, Noah, mother Susi, father Peter, Eric and wife Roisin McElroy.

Once the brothers—both tall, personable and handsome—make it into the American Wing, it’s clear that they know every inch of the place. When a piece is missing from its usual spot, they notice.

John Townsend (1732-1809) claw-and-ball foot at the Met.

They do that when they are not taking road trips together (often with Eric’s wife, Roisin, in tow) to look at historic houses and find antiques; or traveling the world separately to Italy and Japan, Instagramming their finds along the way. Friendly banter is their lingua franca: Eric, 30, will often call Noah “little brother.”

And just because the Wunsch Americana Foundation has mostly 18th-century pieces (and some 700 objects in total), that doesn’t mean they only know that time period. “We love to make connections across genres,” says Eric.

The brothers bliss out in the Frank Lloyd Wright Living Room, where a guard has to remind them there’s no leaning on the stanchions, since they are getting too comfortable. They utter hosannas about an Arts & Crafts clock by the inventive Charles Rohlfs of Buffalo.

Oak and copper (with green enamel) tall clock by Brooklyn-born Charles Rohlfs (1853-1936), a maverick of the Arts and Crafts movement.

In the Gilded Age room, an Aesthetic era bookcase by Lockwood De Forest beguiles Eric: “Beyond just being a beautiful piece, I could see living with it,” he says.

American Lockwood de Forest founded the Ahmedabab Wood Carving Company in 1881 in Ahmedabab, India where this étagère was carved in 1885. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gallery 746.

Detail of the étagère backing - cotton embroidered with coral beads.

In the last year or two, the brothers have started to help their parents steer the ship of the family foundation. Their role is to get younger people enthused about American design of all eras, expanding the foundation’s scope for the first time (though the collecting will stay focused on antiques—“for now,” they say in unison).

They’ve been staging events their grandfather probably never dreamed of, like a viewing of a documentary about the mid-20th-century designer Paul Evans, known for his glam 1970s look. And they’ve started commissioning contemporary designers to make new pieces inspired by the Wunsch antiques; among the first two will be works by the sculptor David Wiseman and the glass artist Thaddeus Wolfe.

Though they speak fluent design omnivore, rhapsodizing about the sculptor Wendell Castle in particular, their hearts still lie with the elegant card tables, high boys and side chairs so well chosen by their grandfather. Perhaps the finest Wunsch piece of all at the Met is the “John Brown” chair, a 1760 mahogany corner seating piece named for its owner and crafted by the great Rhode Island furniture maker John Goddard (1723–85).

Colonial-era corner chair by master craftsman John Goddard.
Photo: courtesy of the Wunsch Collection, 2014 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Grandpa barely collected Federal,” says Eric, distinguishing among the famous 18th-century furniture hubs. “He liked Newport and Philadelphia, and that was reflected in his home.” And listening to the brothers talk about the game-changing chair demonstrates how antiques have seeped into their bloodstreams.

They start to feed off each other. “It’s the most exceptional piece in our collection,” says Noah. “It’s the top example of what a corner chair can be.”

Eric adds, “The chair was groundbreaking. Suddenly seating wasn’t strictly rigid, sculptural, decorative. It became useful.” 

Noah comes back with: “It was for relaxing. It’s literally a lounge chair. As one curator put it, it was the first Lay Z Boy.” At this, they both burst out laughing. It’s funny because it’s true.

But the brothers Wunsch have to wrap up their Met visit—they both have day jobs, and there are future foundation events to plan, in particular their annual January ceremony for the Eric Marin Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts, which happens during the Americana auction week in New York.

If there’s one message they want to get across to their peers, it’s that American design, whether it’s 250 years old or being made tomorrow, is something to be lived with an enjoyed, just like John Brown demonstrated when he kicked back in his corner chair. As Eric puts it, “For us, it all comes back to relevance.”

Produced by Doris Athineos