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

Well before Waddell’s epiphany at Modernism, he had seen pictures of the Friedman house dining room in peri-od publications, although those black-and-white images did not hint at Weber’s striking color scheme (see Fig. 1). Four of the six dining chairs mysteriously appeared in a Palm Springs junk shop in 2006, where the unattributed pieces were snapped up by a savvy picker who quickly flipped them to Loughrey after showing him the historical photographs. The chairs’ high backs—composed of five broad horizontal slats of lightly stained blond wood—convey the informality of folding garden furniture. The backs are outlined with thinner framing strips of black-stained wood, the vertical members of which continue downward past the seat to become the two back legs.

Rather than conventionally positioned arms, the chairs have lower than usual rests—handgrips, actually—contained within a continuous curve of black-stained wood that wraps around the seat back, and steps down in ziggurat-like right angles to form the two front legs. It is hard to imagine a more skillfully resolved design than this, in which no element is left incomplete or abandoned after a quick theatrical effect is accomplished—a failing of so much art deco design. (I use that term advisedly: for years, the ever-precise Waddell has chafed against the misnomer “art deco” to describe what he insists must be termed “American modern” design, restricting the French term to works made in that country after the eponymous Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925 in Paris, much as some scholars of nineteenth-century design now prefer “American classical” to the old solecism of “American Empire.”)

Although the eighty-year-old varnish of this happily unrestored chair has darkened to a honeyed maple color, the original pale hue is visible on portions of the frame that were protected from oxidation by the seat’s upholstery. A tiny scrap of chartreuse leather discovered on the frame by Loughrey hints at the jazzy tonality of Weber’s concept, but Waddell has decided to keep the unbleached muslin it came with. Apart from the neutral fabric imparting a kind of Winterthur seriousness, says Waddell, “The other thing I like about muslin is the clear message it communicates: ‘Do Not Sit.’”

1 For more on Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper furniture, see Christopher Long, “Paul T. Frankl’s Skyscraper furniture,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 173, no. 1 (January 2008), pp. 162–171.

MARTIN FILLER, a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of Makers of Modern Architecture (2007), has written extensively on antiques.

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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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