How one Ohioan’s furniture made it to the Met

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art reached out to Ernest Hershberger with an opportunity to collaborate, the Amish furniture maker was stunned.

“You know, I knew about them,” Hershberger said. “But I did say, ‘Well, who’s the Met?’ And I still get made fun of for that.”

The fourth generation woodworker started learning the trade fresh out of grade school. When he got married, Hershberger and his wife opened their first furniture business in a converted chicken coop.

It didn’t take long for that business to evolve — now their extensive showroom is filled with finely crafted wooden tables and kitchen chairs.

“We’ve got all the upholstery stuff upstairs, and then there’s a downstairs, and an outdoor section,” Hershberger said.

But that’s not all. He unlocks a door at the back of the showroom.

“So this is a little bit more high end,” he said.

On the other side of the door, a gold leaf tunnel gives way to rooms full of high-end designer furniture. The pieces here are sleek and modern, with woodwork inspired by the arches in Roman architecture and Europe’s flying buttress cathedrals.

“We build one piece at a time,” Hershberger explained.

And each piece is beautiful. They’re solid hardwood, certified green and custom made — qualities that Hershberger said prompted New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to reach out.

The museum was looking for a company to design furniture based on famous works of art in their collection.

“They gave us a clean sheet of paper and said, ‘We want you to come to New York,’” Hershberger said. “‘We’re going to open up storehouses and artifacts that haven’t been seen by the general public for decades. And you have an open field to use anything you want as an inspiration.’”

Hershberger’s team eventually landed on seven works of art, across genres and geographies, from Van Gogh to Seurat.

Each painting inspired a corresponding piece of furniture.

The influence is often quite literal — a cocktail table with the shape and color of a Van Gogh sunflower.

But their relationship also goes deeper.

Hershberger stands before one of the pieces — a tall brass mirror based on a portrait by Diego Velázquez.

A photo of a brass mirror side by side with a portrait of man dressed in regal attire.

Courtesy of Ernest Hershberger, Abner Henry Furniture

Ernest Hershberger’s team designed the Ventana Standing Mirror based on a Velázquez portrait of a slave.

“That’s hand polished up to 6,000 grit where it actually has a reflective nature,” Hershberger said.

The original painting, Juan de Pareja, depicts Velázquez’s slave decorated in regal attire. Velazquez painted it as practice for a commissioned portrait of the pope. But legend has it, the painting helped him see his slave’s humanity. Months later, he filed paperwork to free the man.

Hershberger says the mirror tries to capture the essence of that story.

“To me it was just a whole reflective nature of us as people going through our journey in life,” he said. “Either we’re self-reflecting and growing, or we’re self-destructing and trying to lift ourselves up while we push other people down.”

All seven pieces have a story like this one.

The Pirouette Console Table

A picture of an elegant, long white table is next to Edgar Degas' famous painting of dancers dressed in white tutus.

Courtesy of Ernest Hershberger, Abner Henry Furniture

The Pirouette Console Table was inspired by Edgar Degas’ The Dance Class.

Based on Edgar Degas’ The Dance Class, the Pirouette Console Table is designed to capture motion.

“We’ve got all this wavy wood here, and it’s got a double color going on so the shadows will ebb and play on it,” Hershberger said.

One side of the table is grounded in heavy steel, but the other stretches far to the side.

Dancers.mp3

Ernest Hershberger describes a leadership lesson of the Pirouette Console.

According to Hershberger, this piece encapsulates a message of leadership.

“I personally hate goals,” he said. “And people always look at me a little weird and I say, ‘Here’s the reason why: People set goals and they reach them. Why not be a steward of the talent God gave you and let it go? And who’s to say that you wouldn’t go way past your goal?’”

The Verlang Cocktail Table

A picture of a cocktail table sits next to withering sunflower, painted by Vincent van Gogh.

Curtesy of Ernest Hershberger, Abner Henry Furniture

The Verlang Cocktail Table is based on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

The Verlang Cocktail Table is based on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

“We had to get to the spiritual side of each painter,” Hershberger said. “Van Gogh, for example, painted his most famous painting, the Sunflower, in his deepest depression. And out of that, he painted one of his most vibrant paintings.”

Sunflowers.mp3

Ernest Hershberger describes the inspiration for the Verlang Cocktail Table.

This cocktail table, Hershberger said, is a fairly direct interpretation of that painting. The shape and materials used are all meant to resemble the titular bloom.

The Coralie Cocktail Table

A table with a sparkling blue and green glass top sits next to a painting of a woman in a chair by the seashore.

Curtesy of Ernest Hershberger, Abner Henry Furniture

The Coralie Cocktail Table is based on a painting by Auguste Renoir, By the Seashore.

The Coralie Cocktail Table is based on a painting by Auguste Renoir, By the Seashore.

The painting depicts a regal woman sitting on the Normandy coast, with cliffs and water in the background.

The table uses glass to recreate its color and feel.

By the Seashore.mp3

Ernest Hershberger describes the colors of the Coralie Cocktail Table.

“I tell people, this is what I imagined that Earth was before creation,” Hershberger said. “When you think about all the colors that are out there, and all the colors that we’ve integrated into this, it was just a sea of color that got separated and created the planet Earth we have today.”

The Duet Nesting Tables

Inspired by a painting by Edouard Manet, called The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil, the Duet Nesting Tables represent a family, Hershberger said.

The bigger table represents the husband, the smaller table is the mother, and the kids are represented in their golden legs.

Nesting Tables.mp3

Ernest Hershberger describes the inspiration for the Duet Nesting Tables.

Serena Bar Cabinet

A tall white bar cabinet next to a painting of a woman dressed in white.

Courtesy of Ernest Hershberger, Abner Henry Furniture

The Serena Bar Cabinet is based on a painting of a woman in white by Gustav Klimt, titled Serena Pulitzer Lederer.

The Serena Bar Cabinet is based on a painting of a woman in white by Gustav Klimt, titled Serena Pulitzer Lederer.

“[The bar cabinet] is unique from a craftsman’s position where that wood is one piece wide, not glued together,” Hershberger said. “It has a double compound curve of hardwood, which is not supposed to be able to be done. So that’s a workmanship of itself.”

Serena.mp3

Ernest Hershberger describes the design of the Serena Bar Cabinet.

This piece is meant to portray a message of individualism.

“Each one of us are uniquely made in God’s image,” Hershberger said. “Be who God created you to be. Find yourself. Know your way, know who you are, and then live your life to the fullest within that.”

Severine Console Table

A wooden console table made up of blocks of uneven lengths stands beside a Seurat painting of a circus.

Courtesy of Ernest Hershberger, Abner Henry Furniture

The Severine Console Table was inspired by a Georges Seurat painting, Circus Sideshow.

Finally, the Severine Console Table was inspired by a Georges Seurat painting, Circus Sideshow.

The people depicted in the painting all wear different hats. At the time, that represented people coming together from different cultures, Hershberger said.

The Severine Console Table replicates that concept with blocks of wood, each with different lengths.

Circus Sideshow.mp3

Ernest Hershberger describes the meaning and message of the Severine Console Table.

“I call it my peace offering,” Hershberger says. “What this represents is family and culture and togetherness, and my plea is that we just accept each other, and get along with each other, and respect each other’s faiths and cultures.

“I would want every president of every country in the world to have one of these in their offices as a reminder that we really want peace, and we want to love each other and accept each other for who we are as a culture and as a family.”

Making ‘something really special’

These pieces were unveiled to a global audience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in April, but the collection has since returned home to Amish country. Hershberger plans to sell a limited number of each piece.

It’s a dream he’s had since he was young.

“Growing up, I’d always imagined at some point in my career I’d make something really special, like some unique piece of furniture that I would sign and date, and I’d never do it again,” he said.

He said he couldn’t have done it without faith.

“They are, each one of them, a reflection of faith,” he said. “We had to get to the spiritual side of the painter, of what he was struggling with at the time in the setting that he was painting these famous paintings. And we had to bring that back up onto our spiritual side of what we were struggling with today.”

In this way, Hershberger said, the collection breathes new life and perspective into already timeless works of art.

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