American ART DECCO Furniture
By: Ric Emmett, ISA-AM
The Art Deco movement began in France after World War I, although at that time it was called "Moderne". In America, it was called "Modern" or "Modernistic. The term "Art Deco" was coined nearly 50 years after the seminal 1925 Paris "Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes", which was later contracted to "Art Deco" in the 1960s to identify the movement.
The United States did not exhibit at the 1925 Paris Exposition. Herbert Hoover, our Secretary of Commerce, sent the French organizers of the show a letter saying in effect that we had nothing to offer.
The Art Deco movement furniture, as shown at the 1925 Exposition, was aimed at the very rich with exotic veneers, bronze, ivory, parchment and gauchet (stingray skin) details. The Exposition was a success with millions attending and great reviews in the world press.
While America had no representation at the Exposition, many young American designers such as Donald Deskey and Gilbert Rohde did visit and came away impressed.
The other major influence on American Art Deco furniture was the Bauhaus in Germany from 1913 – 1933, until the Nazis closed it down. Many of our American designers visited the Bauhaus with its emphasis on clean lines and form following function and added that design vocabulary to their work. From the Germany-Austria area came American designers, Paul Frankl, Kem Weber and Wolfgang Hoffmann.
After a late start, American design partly spurred in the late 1920’s by Exhibitions in major department stores of French deco furniture and in the early 1930’s American deco furniture design began to be established.
Perhaps the most famous American deco designer was Donald Deskey (1894–1989). He designed New York apartments for Adam Gimbel, the Patterson family and apartments for three Rockefellers. His most famous commission was the palace of American art deco: Radio City Music Hall. Deskey’s commissions were executed by the "Company of Mastercraftsmen" and "Schmieg & Kotzian". He also designed furniture for his own companies, "Deskey-Volmer" and "Amodec". Some of his best designs were for the "Widdicomb Furniture Company" of Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1930’s.
Paul Frankl (1886–1958) was the first American designer to produce a totally original American furniture design with his "Skyscraper" bookcases, desks and other furniture which mimicked the setbacks and ziggurats of the New York skyline, the success of which led him to name his company "Skyscraper Furniture". Between his early 1920’s success with "Skyscraper" style furniture and "Speed" furniture of the 1930’s, Frankl wrote books and magazine articles on the modern style and was its most vocal proponent.
Gilbert Rohde (1886– 944) was one of the pioneers of American art deco design. Starting in the late 1920’s, Rohde designed furniture for clients and had his furniture designs retailed by others. In 1930 he designed a line of furniture for "Heywood Wakefield" and beginning in 1931 until 1944 he designed for the "Herman Miller Company" using a variety of new materials and techniques. While Rohde designed for several other furniture manufacturers, his innovative work for Herman miller remains his best. His designs for "Troy Sunshade" explored the use of chrome in modern furniture.
Kem (Karl Emmanuel Martin) Weber (1889-1963) studied under Bruno Paul who guided him to design and supervise the construction of the German Pavilion at the 1910 International Exposition in Brussels, leading to his commission to do the German section at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. World War I broke out and Weber was fortunately trapped in America. In the early 1920’s, Weber became Art Director for Barker Brothers in Santa Barbara, California, designing several lines of modern furniture. In 1927 he left Barker Brothers (but remained as design consultant) and opened his own design studio in Los Angeles. Weber designed furniture for Higgins Mfg. Co., Meyers Co., Berkey & Gay, Hakelite Mfg., S. Karpen & Bros., Noha Furniture Co., and Lloyd Mfg. Co.
Wolfgang Hoffmann (1900–1969) was born in Vienna, Austria. The son of the famous architect and Wiener Werkstatte co-founder, Joseph Hoffmann. Wolfgang was early trained in the Decorative Arts. While in Vienna, Wolfgang met and married his wife, Pola, who had been born in Poland in 1902 and was studying under Joseph Hoffmann at the Vienna School of Design. In 1925 the couple arrived in New York and worked for Joseph Urban in the American branch of the Bauhaus. Leaving Urban, the Hoffmanns formed an independent design team with offices on Madison Avenue in New York. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the Hoffmanns designed custom furniture for private clients. The Hoffmann’s work was shown at both the 1928 and 1928 American Designers Gallery Exhibitions. In 1932 Wolfgang was asked to assist Joseph Urban in developing the color scheme for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and also was asked to design the interior and furniture for the Lumber Industries house. The Chicago World’s Fair brought Hoffmann to the attention of the Howell Co., headquartered in Geneva, Illinois (Later, St. Charles, Illinois), where he became resident designer from 1934 through 1942, offering lines of chromed steel furniture.
A native New Yorker, Eugene Schoen (1880–1957) received a degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1901, and upon graduation won a scholarship to travel in Europe where he met Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann. Schoen established an architectural practice in New York City in 1905, and after seeing the 1925 Paris Exposition he was inspired to set up an interior decorating business at 115 E 60th Street, New York, where he remained until the reversals of the Depression forced a move to 43 West 39th Street. His timing was fortunate: by the late 1920’s when modernism made its initial forays into the American home, Schoen was perfectly placed to capitalize on its advances. He was even able to display complete room settings in his gallery in 1928, when most of his colleagues were competing for space in department store exhibitions. Furniture, textiles and rugs designed by Eugene Schoen were exhibited in several contemporary design exhibits. He participated in the two exhibits of industrial design held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and exhibited furniture at the Pennsylvania Museum of Fine arts.
The American Art Deco furniture market was just getting started when the 1929 stock market crash occurred, leading to the Depression which lasted until the start of WWII. Introducing a radically new form of furniture during the Depression was a daunting task.
The success of the American Art Deco furniture was in the large cities with young affluent consumers who appreciated the clean lines and streamlining of the stylish new furniture.
Unlike today’s furniture (and almost all postwar furniture) 1930’s Modern furniture was made to order. If you liked what you saw in a catalog or showroom, an order was placed and your furniture was made and shipped to you.
Many of these original buyers retired to Florida and examples are here to be discovered.
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