Kem Weber and the rise of modern design in Southern California

Weber designs of the later 1920s explored new directions. In place of the frenetic forms he had experimented with in his Modes and Manners pieces, he began to rely increasingly on simple repeated geometries and attenuated shapes. An armchair he designed for the John Bissinger residence in San Francisco around 1928, for example, was at once lucid and elegant, a harbinger of the sleek and sophisticated modernism that would come to define the Hollywood of the 1930s (see Fig. 1). Weber reiterated this same language in his interiors, fusing unaffected, direct wall and floor treatments with sumptuous and refined furniture and lighting (see Fig. 10).

Already apparent in his designs of the late 1920s too were indications of what would become one of his signature traits: smooth rounded surfaces and slender extended lines—the hallmarks of the coming language of streamlining. In this period Weber was also interested in finding ways of adapting his designs for mass production. Almost from the start, after setting up his new design office, he began to search out opportunities to collaborate with manufacturers, offering his services not only to design new products, but to reshape them to fit consumer requirements and demand. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, such efforts took on a new urgency as companies sought to entice wary buyers.

Weber was especially eager to explore the possibilities of new materials and production methods, from tubular metal to the new man-made materials then beginning to appear in the marketplace. He was also interested in investigating new approaches for constructing furniture, moving away from traditional forms of joinery and support. For a time he worked on an idea for what he called “Bentlock” furniture, which relied on bent hardwood—usually hickory—with an oval “lock” of solid wood in place of dowels or mortise-and-tenon joints at places where the wood was usually joined.6  The technique produced a distinctive and novel cast for his pieces, but it proved impractical, and he eventually abandoned it.

He began to look instead at using solid or glued wooden members cut in sweeping, curving shapes. For some time he had wanted to try out the idea of a chair that could be sold disassembled and readily put together by the consumer. For months in the mid-1930s, he labored on a design that could fit into a box small enough to carry home from the store. The result was his Airline Chair, which remains one of his best-known designs (Fig. 7). The chair packed flat in a box weighed seventeen pounds. Assembly, which required only a few minutes, involved slipping two rods into self-tightening hooks hung between the front and back rails.7 The chair could be adjusted from an upright back to a partially reclining position, and came with either a cloth or leather seat cover over a double pad of rubberized hair.8 It was designed to sell for $24.75, but despite the relatively modest cost Weber was never able to find a manufacturer interested in mass-producing it.9 Most of the models he had made ended up in the extensive studio complex he designed for Walt Disney in Burbank in the late 1930s.

Weber had more success with the tubular steel chairs he designed for the Lloyd Manufacturing Com-pany in Menominee, Michigan (Fig. 3). The company first approached him in the mid-1930s; by 1938, he had produced more than a dozen different chairs and occasional tables with dramatic curling lines.10 The low gracile pieces, Weber told a reporter, were intended not only to be comfortable to sit in and use: “It is a matter, as well, of harmonizing lines and low, restful tones, and a sensation of unlimited space even in a small room.”11 The notion of producing furniture that was also restful to the eye and mind was born of Weber’s belief that true functionality arose from understanding how people really lived and what they wanted in their lives: “I have studied how people behave, how they live when they are at home. I am interested in structural principles, not in the application of ornament.”12

Most of Weber’s chairs and other pieces for Lloyd were priced in the $20 to $140 range, making them accessible to the broad middle-class market. But he also continued to produce custom designs for well-to-do clients. Among the most spectacular were the furnishings he created for the mansion of insurance magnate Walter Edwin Bixby Sr. in Kansas City, Missouri, in the mid-1930s. Bixby engaged the noted Kansas City architect Edward W. Tanner (1895–1974) to design a modern house and asked Weber to furnish thirteen of its rooms.13 Equipped with a generous budget, he lavished attention on the project, fashioning some of the most extraordinary American interiors of the interwar years. The individual pieces (see Figs. 8, 11, 12) displayed his penchant for bold and distinctive gestures. The sweeping contours of the desk, for example, with its pronounced horizontality, evoked the impression of the restlessness of modern business life and an unceasing striving for success—something that must have delivered a powerful message for a man of Bixby’s ambitions. In the dining table and chairs, by contrast, Weber sought to offer solace—a time of quiet after a hard day’s labors.

The outbreak of World War II curtailed Weber’s design work. He tried to interest the government in a panelized construction system he had invented for defense-related housing projects, but could not secure a contract. After the war he moved back to Santa Barbara and worked mostly as an architect, building a handful of houses there and in nearby Montecito. By the late 1950s, his health began to fail and he died in 1963.

Though not as well known as Rudolph M. Schindler (1887–1953) or Richard Neutra (1892–1970), the two figures who dominated the modern architectural scene in Los Angeles between the wars, Weber nonetheless occupied a pivotal role in introducing modernism to Southern California. He was instrumental not only in helping to define the special look of American modernism but also in shaping its distinctive West Coast variant. In extolling the virtues and imagery of a new, more relaxed lifestyle, freed of the stiffness and pretensions of traditional interiors, he laid the groundwork for the casual California modernism of the 1950s and 1960s.

Thank you for signing up.

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

» View All