Kem Weber and the rise of modern design in Southern California

May 2009 | In the fall of 1926 Barker Brothers, then the largest furniture retailer in the United States, opened a striking new shop on the fourth floor of its eleven-story building in downtown Los Angeles. The new “store-within-a-store,” christened “Modes and Manners,” was the brainchild of the young designer Kem Weber (Fig. 2). It was not only the first outlet for modern furniture and accessories in Southern California, but also one of the first such shops in the country. “When, at some future date,” an anonymous reporter for Good Furniture Magazine wrote the following year, “the history of the American modernistic furniture movement is written, the Barker Bros. store in Los Angeles and its designer, Kem Weber, will undoubtedly be recorded as among the early leaders in its development.”1

Over the course of the next decade, Weber would work ceaselessly to promote modernism on the West Coast. His remarkable furniture would play a central role in popularizing the new movement and broadly influence California—and all of American—design of the era (see Fig. 3).

Modes and Manners was a marked departure for Barker Brothers, which up to that time had exclusively featured period revival furnishings in its five stores.2 The opening of the shop came precisely at the moment when interest in the new “art moderne,” awakened by the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925, was beginning to gain a foothold in the United States. Still, there was stalwart resistance to the new design modus; even many supporters voiced skepticism about whether the trend would last.  Weber, though, was convinced not only that he could find a ready market for modernism in Southern California, but that the new design would eventually supplant period furnishings, and he worked tirelessly to make the venture a success.

Like almost all the modernists in Los Angeles in the 1920s, Weber was a transplant to the city. He was born Karl Emanuel Martin Weber (in his twenties, he began using his initials as his first name) in Berlin in 1889. After serving as an apprentice cabinetmaker in his teens, he studied architecture and interior design with Bruno Paul at the School of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule) in Berlin and later worked in Paul’s architectural office. In the early summer of 1914, he traveled to San Francisco to supervise the building of the German Pavilion for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, but when the war erupted in Europe in August, he found himself stranded in the United States.

For the next several years, Weber eked out a living. He jobbed for an advertising agency in San Francisco and operated a modern design studio in Berkeley. But after the sinking of the Lusitania tipped American sentiment against Germany, Weber, facing strong prejudices and unable to find clients, was forced to work as a lumberjack in the High Sierra. Toward the war’s end, he operated a chicken farm in Los Gatos with his young wife, Erika. In 1918 they moved to Santa Barbara where Weber taught art classes and opened a small factory in an old church to produce modern and period furniture. Weber, though, found only modest success. When, in 1921, Barker Brothers, impressed with his work, offered him a position in their design department, he jumped at the opportunity.

Weber spent much of the next five years churning out hundreds of designs for Spanish revival style furniture and rooms. In the quest for new sources, he persuaded the store’s managers in 1925 to allow him to undertake a buying and study trip to Spain. While in Europe that summer, he stopped in Paris to view the exposition. Seeing the exhibits of modern furniture and interiors, he became more convinced than ever that the future of American design lay in adopting the new modern style.3 After returning to Los Angeles that fall, he redoubled his efforts to introduce modernism at Barker Brothers. The store’s managers, however, were initially reluctant to embark on what they thought was a risky venture, and it was only after months of discussions and meetings that Weber was finally able to persuade them to undertake the idea.

The new Modes and Manners shop that opened in Barker Brothers in the fall of 1926 was unlike anything that had previously been seen on the West Coast (see Fig. 4).  The space was replete with jagged shapes, startling colors, and frenzied patterns. Weber designed the wall treatments, display cases, and some of the furniture (see Fig. 5); the remainder he acquired from American designers on the East Coast, mostly notably his friend Paul T. Frankl (1886–1958), dean of the new designers in New York. In addition to furniture and lamps, the shop had an extensive textile department, a department for modern silver and other metal accessories, and a dining room where customers could have lunch surrounded by the latest in chic furnishings. They could purchase everything from small gifts—vases, ashtrays, and other decorative articles—to complete, custom-designed interiors.  Those hesitant to convert their houses entirely to the new mode were encouraged to buy individual pieces. “Customers,” the reporter for Good Furniture noted, “are assured that occasional pieces…will look perfectly at home and be quite correct in conventionally furnished rooms and that they will add a delightful modern accent.”4  The notion of functionality, which at the time was at the heart of contemporary discussions about the new design in Europe, was restated in the Modes and Manners shop. “The utterly conventional and frequent question of customers—‘What is this used for?’—is firmly though tactfully discouraged by the salespeople because Barker’s believes that the modern pieces may often have many different uses and that they are exceedingly adaptable to the needs and wishes of their owners.”5

Over the course of the next year, Weber toiled in his studio—the Silver Tree—in Barker Brothers, creating scores of designs, which he turned over to the company’s draftsmen, who produced detailed working drawings. The store, which had its own production facilities, made all of the pieces, selling them not only in the downtown store but also in a new special Hollywood branch, which Weber designed.

But by the end of 1927, Weber was restless. He had grown weary of having to advocate for his ideas with the store’s management, and, after long indecision, he resolved to leave the store and open an independent design studio in Los Angeles. He continued to work as a consultant for the company, however, shaping the distinctive look of its products well into the 1930s.

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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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