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

Martin Filler Furniture & Decorative Arts

The Magazine ANTIQUES | May 2008

Nothing is more exciting to a passionate connoisseur—even a seasoned expert who has helped redefine his chosen specialty—than discovering an elusive object he’d despaired of ever finding, let alone being able to own. But when that rare opportunity presented itself last fall to the New York–based modern design aficionado John C. Waddell, he—true to form—acted fast and won one of the top prizes of his distinguished collecting career: a long-lost wooden dining chair made in 1927–1928 to the designs of Kem Weber, one of the underappreciated giants of American design and a pivotal figure in the transmission of modernism from Europe to the United States.

Waddell, now retired after decades as chairman of an electronics company, is devoting his still-undiminished energies to the third great twentieth-century collection he’s assembled—the first two of which are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two decades ago, the Metropolitan acquired his pathbreaking 500-work survey of modernist photography, subject of a traveling exhibition and catalog, The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars. Waddell’s holdings gave the Met instant credibility in a medium previously ruled by the Museum of Modern Art. He then moved on to create another seminal overview, of industrial design made in this country during the same period as the photography he had collected. Acquired by the Met in 2000 and memorialized in another show and publication, American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age had an even more profound effect on how its subject matter was viewed.

Given Waddell’s reputation as being one of the handful of today’s most discerning experts in his field, he is often approached by dealers with prime material fresh to the market. Rarely are these great bargains. “Things have to get to a certain price level before they’re offered to me,” he says with a resigned smile, and notes that only seldom is he contacted by antiques pickers who try to circumvent dealers. “The smart pickers are afraid to endanger their bread and butter relationships by coming directly to me,” explains Waddell, no stranger to skullduggery, having worked as a young man for the CIA during the Kennedy Administration. “And the few who try to cut out the dealers want me to swear secrecy, knowing that if word ever got out they’d be dead in the trade.”

Landing his latest treasure had less to do with undercover intrigue than Waddell’s diligent collecting ethic, which includes keeping a sharp eye on publications, both new and historical, as well as punctuality. For years there have been complaints about the alleged declining quality of New York’s pre-eminent twentieth-century decorative arts fair, Sanford Smith’s Modernism, held each November at Manhattan’s Seventh Regiment Armory. Some have noted the fair’s growing number of photography dealers as well as the absence of certain important galleries, but Waddell considers Modernism’s opening night an essential event.“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 over inflated 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.  Well before Waddell’s epiphany at Modernism, he had seen pictures of the Friedman house dining room in period 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.