Otto Berge

Two men in dark suits embrace one another's shoulder looking toward the camera.
Otto Berge (left) with his brother Sam, ca. 1913

NPS Photo

Quick Facts

Otto Berge emigrated from Norway in 1913. A wheelwright by training, Berge was largely self-taught as a cabinetmaker following his arrival in the United States. After working a short time as a woodcrafter in an automobile body factory and then a few years as a house carpenter, Berge took a job repairing furniture at the East 13th Street Antique Shop in New York City. Berge developed his craft by instinct, familiarizing himself with eighteenth-century craftsmanship and perfecting his technical skill. He studied the furniture collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Throughout his life, he remained committed to traditional values of craftsmanship and historic integrity.

Berge joined the Val-Kill Shop in the summer of 1927. The shop was busy and well equipped when he arrived, but he was critical. Berge thought the furniture designs were attractive, but lacking correctness, pointing out their unfamiliarity with authentic American style and techniques. Berge’s criticism was directed, in part, toward adaptations designed to make the furniture “suitable for modern needs,” an advertised feature of Val-Kill furniture.

By the end of 1930, orders for the Furniture Shop dropped so low that most of the workers were let go, leaving only Berge and two others. During the remaining years, orders were scarce and infrequent, preventing steady full-time work.

By 1935, Mrs. Roosevelt and her partners began liquidation of the Furniture Shop. Mrs. Roosevelt was making plans to convert the factory building into her own residence. Berge stayed through 1936 to complete the final orders, most of them placed by Mrs. Roosevelt for her new cottage. Berge had been setting up a shop at his home, presumably to start his own business as soon as he was able. He accepted Mrs. Roosevelt’s offer take what machinery from the shop he still needed and the Val-Kill Shop trademark. Berge continued making furniture under the Val-Kill name until his retirement in the 1970s.

Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site

Last updated: April 1, 2020