Aschermanns

The Aschermanns wrote passionately about the value they perceived in color. They gently denounced the American fascination with antiques, which they believed was responsible for creating a drab and muted color palette, hailing instead the advent of color in design as “a glorious sunset, which has unexpectedly come after a dull grey day.”13 They were careful to stress that they were advocating a special way of using color: “Not colors splashed heedlessly here and there or thrown haphazard in every nook and cranny, but colors harmoniously chosen, pleasantly balanced, and appropriately placed.”14

The Aschermanns’ interest in color was not confined to its design potential. They were interested, too, in its psychological effects: “Instinctively, we love bright colors; they affect us one and all. To be surrounded by our favorite colors, brightly and harmoniously used, has a stimulating and enlivening effect on us, young and old.”15 They added, “our immediate color surroundings may materially keep us gay or sad, merry or dull. Optimism is color, pessimism, lack of color.”16

But the rich use of color was only one distinctive feature of the Aschermanns’ approach. They also trumpeted their belief that modernism should be made accessible to all, noting that paint or fabric could dramatically alter the appearance of a space without great expense: “The beauty of the whole modern movement is that it offers an unlimited chance for individual expression. It needs no more money but a great deal more time and thought, for bright colors demand proper care and treatment!”17 Rather than focusing on a well-to-do clientele, they sought to forge a popular modernism—a concept they believed was distinctly American: “Here, in America, the effect of what is sometimes called Modernism is seen now, more or less, in every form of Art—simplicity, appropriateness, profuse and fearless yet thoughtful use of color—it must appeal to our beauty-loving and yet practical selves.”18

Another prominent feature of the Aschermanns’ work was their use of simple, factory-made furniture. The 1915 Craftsman article observed that perhaps their “most ingenious device” was “to take plain, unfinished, inexpensive factory furniture and complete it themselves, transforming it, with enamel, stain, painted decorations, or upholstered and inlaid fabrics of rich coloring and design, into furniture of real individuality and beauty.”19 This approach differed fundamentally from that of their contemporaries in the arts and crafts movement or the modernists in Vienna, who believed that every object in a room should be designed specifically to fit into an overall aesthetic.

The full impact of the Aschermanns’ ideas was evident in a house in Forest Hills, Queens, completed around 1915. The client was most likely Walter Hartwig, a Broadway director and producer who became a close family friend. One surviving image, which shows a view through several rooms in the house, conveys the Aschermanns’ emphasis on the need for harmony and thoughtfulness in the use of color (Fig. 1). Particularly striking is the yellow and blue dining room that can be glimpsed beyond (Fig. 7). Here bright blue and yellow mingled with black and white. The walls were divided into panels framed by painted borders of blue, which was repeated in the rug, curtains, and chair seats. Accents of yellow appeared in the lampshades and in the center of the wall panels, where sconces alternated with stylized flower medallions, another device they borrowed from Biedermeier design.

Most of the furnishings in the Forest Hills house appear to have been mass-produced pieces that the Aschermanns adapted. But they also designed and made their own furniture. Some pieces, like the tall étagère in Figure 14, drew from the arts and crafts aesthetic, combining simple lines and through tenons. For others they relied directly on Viennese models. The small round side table in Figure 10 employs basic geometric forms—circles, cylinders, and spheres—à la Hoffmann. The white lacquered finish also repeated standard Viennese modernist ideas, covering the grain in a way that highlighted the abstract nature of the form. The most original of their designs was an umbrella stand, also likely from the early war years, that features elemental lines and rudimentary construction, a harbinger of later constructivism and De Stijl (Fig. 9).

Much of the Aschermanns’ aesthetic issued from such notions of plainness. Yet just as often they took simple shapes and elaborated them with ornament. The small painted tray in Figure 8, for instance, is decorated with stylized butterflies and edge decoration evocative of folk motifs, but it is a fresh and original interpretation. It takes from the Jugendstil an absorption with di­­­rect, graphic representation, but the Aschermanns’ insistence on painting freehand—rather than using stencils—suggested a more carefree modernism, one they believed was more fitting to the American context.

The Aschermanns completed only a handful of commissions between 1915 and 1920. Still, the impact of their work, at least for a time, was substantial. Articles in Craftsman, Arts and Decoration, and the Modern Art Collector showcased their designs as examples of modern interiors, and their work was cited in books on interior design as exemplary of the “modern” style of decoration. In The New Interior, one of the first books to document the nascent American modern movement, Hazel Adler offered special thanks to the Aschermann Studio and employed numerous images and descriptions of their work, particularly to illustrate design ideas for small houses and apartments.20 Other instructional books also used the Aschermanns’ work as examples of modern design, among them The Practical Book of Interior Decoration (1919) and The Practical Book of Furnishing the Small House and Apartment (1922).

After 1920 the Aschermanns disappeared from the design scene. Undoubtedly, anti-German sentiment during and after World War I played a part. More important, though, was an increasingly rich family life. By 1920 Ted, the child whose baby talk had so impressed the New York Times reporter in 1914, had been joined by brothers David and Aldon; a fourth son, Adrian, was born later. Edward had inherited an interest in a mining company in Michigan that provided sufficient income to live comfortably. In 1919 he purchased a house in the artists’ community of Ogunquit, Maine. The family moved many of the pieces designed for their Manhattan apartment to the new house, and for the rest of Edward’s life they split their time between Ogunquit and New York.

Although Edward and Gladys had stopped producing design work, they remained involved with art. They wrote and illustrated books as gifts for their children, helped them paint murals on their walls, and assisted them in staging theatrical productions, complete with sets.21 Their presence prompted Hartwig to buy the house next door in Ogunquit in 1933. He and his wife, Maude, founded the Ogunquit Playhouse summer theater and commissioned the Aschermanns to design the interior, a commission they shared with their fourteen-year-old son David, who had shown aptitude as an artist. The result was an orange and deep blue interior, but sadly, the installation is now destroyed, and no photographs of it are known to exist. It was likely the last interior Edward worked on. He died of cancer in 1940.22 Gladys died in 1948.23 The Ogunquit house continued to be used by their sons, who passed it on to their children.

Though they had attracted considerable attention with their work, the Aschermanns’ impact on the rise of modern American design was fleeting. They were perhaps too far ahead of their time: their work had all but been eclipsed before the modern movement had regained momentum in the United States in the mid-1920s. But their singular combination of design ideas—their stress on inexpensive, individualized, and integrated interiors—would become crucial components of American design in later years. Their efforts to forge a bold new aesthetic adds an important chapter to the early story of modern American design—one as vibrant as their favorite hues.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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