from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2011 |
The story of the rise of modern American design has long been told in the same way: first came the arts and crafts movement from Britain and art nouveau from the Continent in the 1890s. Then, in the mid-1920s, spurred by the Paris exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Americans embraced the distinctive forms of art moderne. What happened in the decades between has long been a void, when Americans, it was thought, undertook few experiments and made little progress.
But there were notable and important exceptions. Paul T. Frankl, Ilonka Karasz, Winold Reiss, and others were already active in New York before World War I. Among the forgotten pioneers in this period were Edward H. Aschermann and his wife, Gladys, who worked as interior designers in New York from 1908 to around 1920.1 Together, they shaped a modernism combining the principles of the Wiener Werkstätte and early nineteenth century Biedermeier design with a distinctly American interest in color, individuality, and frugality. Their bold and vibrant interiors and furnishings brought to the United States the unmistakable impress of the Viennese Secessionists. But in remaking the modernist style of the Viennese to suit American sensibilities, the couple also laid the groundwork for the rise of the new design in the 1920s.
Edward H. Aschermann was born in Milwaukee in 1878, the son of German immigrants involved with manufacturing and mining in Wisconsin and Michigan.2 Brought up with a thorough command of the German language, he trained as a painter, reportedly studying for a time at the Académie Julian in Paris.3 A surviving painting, still in family hands, depicting sailboats in Saint-Tropez, offers a hint of the qualities that would characterize his design work. The colors are rich and vibrant, yet the palette is restricted to a few hues, tied together by a rust brown tone employed throughout as an accent.
The key moment in Aschermann’s design education seems to have occurred in 1905, when he undertook an extended tour to Europe. A series of surviving Baedeker guides still in family hands reveals that he traveled to London, Belgium, the Netherlands, Paris, and Berlin. In each place he visited the art museums and made extensive annotations on the artworks in the margins of his guidebooks, taking particular note of the artists’ use of color.
Even more important for his developing ideas was a stop in Vienna, evidently reflecting a growing absorption with the work of Josef Hoffmann. It is unclear how this interest had been awakened, but perhaps his German background led him to Hoffmann or perhaps he had seen the sensational room Hoffmann had designed for the Vienna
Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis (see Fig. 3).
The nature and extent of Aschermann’s training with Hoffmann remain a mystery, though it seems to have taken place by 1907. Aschermann took from Hoffmann not only a penchant for clean lines and spare geometry, but also a belief in the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” While in Vienna, Aschermann also apparently became interested in Biedermeier design. The Biedermeier revival, which had begun in Vienna just after the turn of the century, provided him with ideas about how to fashion integrated works of design.
While studying with Hoffmann, Aschermann met Louise Brigham, another young American student, with whom he would enjoy a lifelong friendship and a fruitful working relationship. After returning from Vienna, he illustrated her book Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home, published in 1909. The work gave instructions on how to build simple, modern furniture out of wooden packing crates, an idea Brigham developed during several summers spent on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen. “As I worked in that far-off marvelous land of continuous day, surrounded by mountains and glaciers,” she wrote, “I felt anew the truth, so familiar to all, that work to be of real value must be honest, useful, and beautiful, and Ruskin and Morris spoke as clearly in the arctic regions as in the settlements or studio in New York.”4
Aschermann’s contribution to Box Furniture went far beyond that of a mere illustrator. The few photographs in the book show Brigham’s furniture conventionally arranged in ordinary rooms. But Aschermann’s illustrations portray interiors that are very different—and strikingly modern (see Fig. 6). In accord with Hoffmann’s ideas, he broke the walls into panels bordered with simple painted geometrical motifs, which are carried over to the furniture and curtains. The square—and a multitude of variations on it—governs the geometry of the furniture and the configuration of the whole. Drawing from Biedermeier interiors, Aschermann used a smattering of pictures, plants, and knickknacks to soften the severity of the modern lines.