Above all Weber sought to find the Americanness of modern American design, to convey the unique conditions of the American lifestyle and attitudes. What drove his design decisions was an interest in matching the Bixbys' lifestyle with an aesthetic that was both appropriate and up to date; by doing so, he was able to achieve a compelling and beautiful statement of a particular time in American history. His design, indeed, was the full realization of almost two decades of American efforts to find an idiom that was both modern and American. Only a short time later, with the arrival of large numbers of European modernists fleeing the rise of Nazism, much of what characterized that new American aesthetic would be swept away by the rising flood of the International Style. Walter Rendell Storey, then the design critic for the New York Times, writing about the Bixby House in the London Studio International in 1939, recognized the special features of Weber's achievement: "The modern style, international though it is because it has grown up in many countries and has certain fundamental unities, is nevertheless varied. Different social and individual needs must be met, different methods of manufacture taken into account and regional tastes provided for. In the United States, where contemporary fashion developed much later than in Europe, these variations are most evident."12
Weber's remarkable interiors, sadly, no longer exist. Walter Bixby Sr., sold the house in 1949, and the furnishings were distributed among various family members and friends or sold. His son, Walter Jr., in an homage to the original design, fitted out the private screening room of his penthouse apartment in Kansas City with a group of Weber's Airline chairs he had saved.13 Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house itself remains in excellent condition, carefully restored in the early 1990s.14 In 1990 it served as the backdrop for the film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. All that remains of the original installations are the railing in the circular stair hall and the curved sofa in the basement. But the house stands as a testament to a special moment in American architecture and design and to the efforts of Weber and Tanner to forge a true, indigenous modernism.
1 Charles and Mary Baer, Edward W. Tanner, Architect (Meseraull Press, Kansas City, Missouri, 2000), pp. i-viii; "E. W. Tanner, Plaza Architect, Dies." Kansas City Times, April 26, 1974; National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, United State Department of the Interior, 1974; Richard B. Fowler, Leaders in Our Town (Burd and Fletcher Company, Kansas City, Missouri, 1952), pp. 425-428. 2 Cydney Millstein and Carol Grove, Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940 (Acanthus Press, New York, 2008), p. 230. 3 Baer and Baer, Edward W. Tanner, pp. 1-25. 4 George Ehrlich, Kansas City, Missouri: An Architectural History, 1826-1990 (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1992), pp. 72-74. 5 On Weber's early life and work, see David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton, Kem Weber: The Moderne in Southern California, 1920-1941 (University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1969); and Christopher Long, "Kem Weber and the rise of modern design in Southern California," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 175, no. 5 (May 2009), pp. 96-103. 6 Kurt Helfrich, "Designing the Moderne: Kem Weber's Bixby House," brochure for an exhibiton at University Art Museum, Santa Barbara, November 29, 2000-February 11, 2001, n.p. 7 Ibid. 8 Kem Weber, "Bit by Bit," California Arts and Architecture, vol. 57 (June 1940), p. 23. 9 Carleton Cady, "Kem Weber Tells What He's After in Modern Furniture," Grand Rapids Herald, July 3, 1936. 10 "This State Line House Exemplifies Modern Residential Design in Kansas City," Kansas City (Missouri) Star, January 10, 1937. 11 Kem Weber, "Modern Art Movement," unpublished lecture, 1929, Kem Weber Archive, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design and Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara. 12 Walter Rendell Storey, "Interior Decorators of Today: Kem Weber," Studio International, vol. 117 (June 1939), p. 264. 13 Helfrich, "Designing the Moderne: Kem Weber's Bixby House," n.p. 14 Loring Leifer, "Executives at Home: A Modern Masterpiece," Ingram's, vol. 19, no. 10 (October 1993), pp. 49-51.
CHRISTOPHER LONG is professor for architectural and design history in the School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin.