A rare Kem Weber chair shows the European side of American modernism

“I always arrive at the preview promptly at the opening hour,” he reports, “because that’s when the great trophies are won. I was flying down the center aisle of the Armory when this chair caught the corner of my eye, and I knew immediately that if I didn’t act fast I’d never see it again.” Actually, another example of this Kem Weber piece had already caught his eye, in a 2006 sales catalogue from Los Angeles Modern Auctions, organized by Peter Loughrey, who later took a booth at the 2007 New York show. In New York, Loughrey’s asking price for one of the four chairs he’d bought a year earlier turned out to be not much higher than the $18,000 the first had fetched at his auction house, and within a matter of minutes of spotting it, Waddell became the chair’s proud new possessor (though he won’t confirm how much he paid).

As opposed to some collectors for whom purchase is the peak moment, after which their interest begins to wane, for Waddell that’s when the real fun begins. He adores doing primary research into hitherto unknown aspects of a work’s conception, manufacture, copyright, marketing, and distribution—indeed everything from the biography of its designer to reasons for its commercial success or failure. Waddell has backed up every piece he owns with a wealth of documentation, from registration papers to contemporary periodicals. Being so well informed gives him added confidence in knowing where and when to pay big money for important pieces. (It must be added that in relation to today’s insanely overinflated art market, most areas of the decorative arts, even at the high end, seem ridiculously underpriced in comparison.)

Although Waddell has been no stranger to the work of Weber (four pieces by the designer are among the objects he gave to the Metropolitan Museum), this latest find represents a significant departure for him in several respects. It was one thing for Waddell to move from photography to industrial design after he divested his first collection. When he stuck to American modernism the second time around, however, some cynics wondered if he was simply reconstituting the same body of work after the museum had given his collection its imprimatur.
But as Waddell points out, Weber notwithstanding,

I am doing a very different collection in a sense. Whereas my earlier interest was in Machine Age and industrially produced material, mainly from the 1930s, now I’m trying to take it back to the advent of modernism in America—’26, ’27, and ’28. The more I get into it, the more I’m finding how key works from those three crucial years reflect the influence of their designers’ countries of origin, before the dominance of American-born thirties industrial designers like Norman Bel Geddes [1893–1958], Henry Dreyfuss [1904–1972] , and Walter Dorwin Teague [1883–1960].

When Waddell first told me he believed his new Weber chair might well be the missing link between the Wiener Werkstätte and American modernism, I was a tad skeptical. But the minute I laid eyes on the piece, I knew exactly what he meant. Its upright stance does speak to direct Central European influences, recalling such earlier dining room chairs as the ones Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956) designed for the 1905 Purkersdorf Sanatorium in Vienna.

Weber, born in Berlin and apprenticed to a royal cabinetmaker in Potsdam, eventually settled in Los Angeles and became the West Coast equivalent of Paul Frankl, the New York furniture designer whose Skyscraper line was a highlight of American modernism.1 Weber is now best remembered for his Airline armchair of 1934–1935, a slouchy, streamlined wood-and-naugahyde design that brings to mind the aerodynamic seating of the first commercial airplanes. (Waddell’s example is now in the Metropolitan Museum). But Weber’s earlier commission for the J. C. Friedman house, built in 1928 in Banning, California, a desert town twenty miles from Palm Springs, had resulted in a very different kind of chair. 

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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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