At home in modernism: The John C. Waddell collection of American design

In addition to Americans who embraced modernism after visiting the Paris fair, there was a loose network of progressive European-born designers who had been active in the UnitedStates since before World War I, including Kem Weber, Joseph Urban, Ilonka Karasz, Paul Frankl, and others. Waddell has been interested in collecting the work of these figures, who actively promoted modern design to America and whose work often reflected their training at Central European craft and architecture schools. Weber arrived in the UnitedStates in 1914 to oversee the construction of the German pavilion at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition.7 Unable to return to Germany due to the war, he remained in San Francisco and eventually settled in Los Angeles. In 1928 he engaged Los Angeles metalsmith Porter Blanchard to fabricate a suite of pewter and ebony tabletop items, including a pair of candelabra (Fig. 6). The stacked forms of the base relate to a line of furniture Weber designed in 1928 for the Grand Rapids Chair Company, and the asymmetrical foliate shapes show his familiarity with the Wiener Werkstätte. 


Frankl, who trained in Vienna and Berlin as an architect before venturing to the United States in 1914, was one of the most vocal members of the European émigré community. A year after arriving in New York he opened an interior design studio in Manhattan that sold a mix of Asian imports and his own designs. Frankl's approach to modern shapes and modern materials is seen in the Rond vanity set, created in 1928 for the Amerith Division of the Celluloid Manufacturing Company (Fig. 7). The set exploits some of the innovative plastics created during the 1920s with the growth of the American chemical industry following World War I. Two of these were Amerith and Amer-glo, pyroxylin plastics with a metallic luster, which Frankl employed in bronze, silver, and gold colors in an abstract pattern of overlapping circles punctuated by dots and stars. He used the vanity set in his 1930 book Form and Re-Form to illustrate the appropriateness of plastics for modern interiors.8

In 1925 Frankl produced his first pieces of Skyscraper furniture, which brought modernist architecture into the home.9 "The cliff dweller of today needs furniture created solely for his needs," Frankl wrote, "pieces adapted to the modern apartment interior, styles expressive of the modern spirit in line, form and rhythm."10 Waddell's mahogany and Formica Skyscraper desk, made between 1927 and 1929, is one of Frankl's most commodious designs (Fig. 8). The irregular arrangement of drawers, shelves, and pigeonholes echoes the setback profiles of contemporary buildings. Waddell uses the desk to display related designs, including a desk accessory designed by William Lescaze, a Libbiloo bookend from Russel Wright's Circus series, a desk clock designed by Frankl for Warren Telechron, and a silverplate Skyscraper picture frame by Bernard Rice's Sons.

The architectural theme also appears in the apartment in a coin-operated scale that towers above two armchairs (Fig. 9). The scale was patented in 1929 by Joseph Sinel for the International Ticket Scale Corporation. As printed on the front in stylized letters, the gleaming steel and painted iron scale promised "honest weight and your fortune printed on [a] ticket." Similar scales were once frequent sights in stores and public spaces. Sinel transformed his version into a miniature skyscraper, literally allowing users to take their measure against modern architecture. The scale is flanked by two armchairs designed by Kem Weber for the Grand Rapids Chair Company. In 1928 GrandRapids introduced the Kem Weber Group, a dining room suite executed in sage green lacquered beech with carved walnut table tops. The same year, Grand Rapids fabricated a second dining suite for Weber, one that he designed for the Banning, California, residence of Ruth and Joseph Friedman.11 The Friedman armchair in the Waddell collection is maple, stained "lemon yellow," and originally had "mustard colored" leather upholstery.12 Weber was a founding member of the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC), which was established in 1928 as a lobbying and support organization for modernist designers. AUDAC and the American Designers' Gallery, also founded in 1928, fostered the promotion of modernism in the United States. The pamphlet for the American Designers' Gallery 1928 exhibition, designed by Ilonka Karasz, hangs above the Friedman house chair while the catalogue for the 1927 Machine-Age Exposition, designed by Fernand Léger, hangs above the Kem Weber Group chair.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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