Review by Nonie Gadsden
Ken Webber: Designer and Architect

Christopher Long. Kem Weber: Designer and Architect. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014. ix + 293 pp.; 96 color and 205 bw illus., list of projects, bibliography, index. $65.00.

Kem Weber (1889–1963) is widely recognized as one of the leading figures in American modern design in the first half of the twentieth century. An architect, designer, and teacher, Weber was perhaps the most outspoken and passionate advocate for modernism on the West Coast between the two world wars. His early adoption of streamlining and designing for mass production marked him as an innovator in the field and earned him a national reputation during his lifetime.

Today, Kem Weber’s name is regularly cited by curators and collectors to represent early modern design in California, and his precariously canti­levered wooden Air Line Chair of 1935, arguably his most iconic design, is displayed in at least a dozen museums across the country as the quintessential expression of the American streamlined aesthetic. But that is only part of the Kem Weber story.

In Kem Weber: Designer and Architect, Christopher Long reveals a much more complex and intriguing narrative of Weber’s life and career. We learn that, despite the respect and praise Weber received from critics and his peers, Weber’s zealous, at times obsessive, quest to develop an American modernist style was fraught with obstacles and failures. Although some of these impediments were self-imposed and others were beyond Weber’s control, Long clearly demonstrates how all the hurdles placed in the designer’s path played a key role in shaping his career, and, most important, his designs.

The impact of this enlightening monograph on Weber is reminiscent of Long’s previous study entitled Paul T. Frankl and American Modern Design (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), a detailed look at Weber’s contemporary and friend. Much of what was written about the Frankl volume rings true for this book on Weber. Surprisingly little in-depth scholarly attention had previously been devoted to either man, despite their extensive name recognition. For Weber, the only earlier publication dedicated to his work is Kem Weber: The Moderne in Southern California, 1920 through 1941 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Printed by Standard Print, 1969), a hard-to-find small exhibition catalogue written by David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton for the Art Galleries of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Both of Long’s comprehensive studies fill major gaps in the field. In each, he strives to address a wide audience by using an engaging narrative style to tell a personal biography at the same time as a larger story about American modern design. As with his monograph on Frankl, Long recounts Weber’s life chronologically, offering contextualizing information to fill out the story along the way.

One notable difference between the two studies, however, is the deep familiarity with which Long is able to depict Weber’s life. This intimacy stems from a treasure trove of personal correspondence and family photographs Long discovered that was still in the hands of Weber’s youngest daughter, Erika Plack, living in Santa Barbara. This personal archive, in combination with Long’s extensive research into archival collections and period publications, allowed him to provide a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the designer’s life and career than he had been able to do with Frankl. One of the wonderful qualities of this book is Long’s ability to share Weber’s own thoughts on his work, fellow designers, supervisors, and clients. Long’s description of the sometimes cantankerous relationships within California modernism circles and their inability to work together to advance their cause is intriguing and begs further study.

Most important, Weber’s personal correspondence documents his (many) disappointments and failures. Although it is sometimes depressing to read about Weber’s constant frustration and rejection, they make his persistence and successes all the more impressive. Weber’s struggles poignantly illustrate the slow and difficult introduction of modern design into American culture and which events and people helped to turn the tide.

From the beginning, Long establishes Weber’s mercurial personality and restless nature. Born Karl Emmanuel Martin Weber to middle-class parents in Berlin, Kem (a nickname taken from the first letter of his first three names) was a rebellious and unhappy child despite being raised in a comfortable home and supportive family. After a three-year apprenticeship with a traditional cabinetmaker, Weber pursued a degree in design at Berlin’s School of the Royal Arts and Crafts Museum under Bruno Paul, its radical new director. Long’s thorough knowledge of European design history is evident as he deftly describes Weber’s training under Paul and contemporaneous trends in avant-garde design in Germany, such as the rise of industrial design.

Weber’s work for Paul’s personal studio sent him to the United States in June 1914 to supervise the installation of the German exhibitions for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. This trip would change the course of his life. With the outbreak of war in Europe, Weber was stranded in this country and had to fend for himself in a foreign culture increasingly hostile to Germans. As Long recounts, Weber befriended other Germans and found work wherever he could. He opened an art studio, designed theater sets and party decorations, worked as a farmer and a lumberjack—anything to survive. The bright light in his life during these years was his marriage to fellow German immigrant Erika Forke.

After the war, Weber and his new wife decided to stay in the United States and moved to Santa Barbara to pursue his dream of opening a modern design studio. Weber’s enthusiasm was soon met with disappointment, as he found few clients interested in modern design—a trend that continued for many years. To earn a living and support his rapidly growing family, Weber designed furnishings in the popular historic-revival styles but never found satisfaction in his work. He joined California’s leading furniture store, Barker Brothers, in 1921. Yet his attempts to introduce modern design were rebuffed time and again. To temper the constant strain of Weber’s discontent and to contextualize Weber’s experience, Long introduces Weber’s contemporaries working in modern styles in the Los Angeles area. Weber mingled with Rudolf Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and others, allowing Long to offer an insightful look into the early years of West Coast modernism. The tantalizing glimpses Weber’s correspondence provides into the complicated, and sometimes rancorous, relationships of the California moderns leave one wishing that topic was fleshed out more.

Weber’s first big break came in the summer of 1925, when positive reactions to European modern designs at the Paris world’s fair prompted Barker Brothers to finally give Weber a chance. Weber opened his highly influential Modes and Manners division in Barker Brothers in August 1926, featuring modern designs primarily of his own creation, supplemented with works by Frankl and others. His designs at the time followed French and German trends with busy patterns and angular shapes. Weber’s dreams were coming true—his designs and efforts to introduce modernism were getting national attention.

However, even when things were going well, Weber’s relentless ambition kept him striving for more, sometimes sabotaging his own progress. In 1927, just as the Modes and Manners shop was taking off, Weber left Barker Brothers to open his own studio again. As Long notes: “restlessness rather than constancy would become a defining hallmark of his production” (p. 64). At first, Weber flourished—the recognition he had achieved at Barker’s led to new commercial commissions in Grand Rapids and New York, many interiors, and even some entire architectural projects. He was not only included but given prime space (over Frankl and other New York designers) and consistently wowed the critics at prominent modern design exhibitions on the East Coast. Weber hired assistants and expanded his shop. It was during this time, Long explains, that Weber starts transitioning his style toward streamlining, creating ever more spare designs that focused on geometries.

Then the stock market crashed. If you only read the critical reviews about Weber’s work during the early 1930s, you would think Weber survived the Depression reasonably well. However, Long’s access to his personal correspondence proves otherwise. The Depression hit Weber, and the entire modern design community, hard. His practice shifted from commissions to speculative endeavors, and he spent an enormous amount of time on the road, trying to convince manufacturers to produce his ideas. It was during this time that he produced one of his most innovative designs—the Bentlock line manufactured by Higgins Furniture. These inexpensive, practical home furnishings were designed for easy mass production and combined a constructivist and streamlined aesthetic. However, though critically acclaimed, sales were poor. He supplemented his income by developing a course on industrial design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles and serving as a set designer for Paramount Studios, before he reluctantly returned to Barker Brothers to redecorate their interiors and launch a new line of more conservative modernized classical furniture called Tempo.

Work picked up in the middle of the decade, as more manufacturers hired industrial designers to design for machine production. Two of Weber’s most famous mass-produced designs were developed in this period: a line of curving tubular steel furniture for Lloyd Manufacturing Company, and his innovative wooden Air Line Chair. Made with bow construction to support a cantilevered, streamlined silhouette, the Air Line Chair could be broken down, shipped flat, and easily assembled by the buyer, like IKEA furniture of today. After unsuccessfully pitching the design to many firms, Weber attempted to manufacture the chairs on his own. Despite their innovation, only several hundred were ever produced.

During this productive period in the middle of the decade, Weber received his most ambitious commission: the deluxe modern interiors for insurance executive Walter E. Bixby Sr., of Kansas City. With a healthy budget and an open-minded client who gave him free rein, Weber created a sophisticated, yet casual interior using curvilinear spaces and designs, lively colors, and new materials, such as aluminum and cork paneling. Long proclaims that “Weber’s work [at the Bixby House] stands as a triumph—one of the last great ones before the coming war—of the ambitions of American designers of that era to harness all of what seemed to be modern and to do so in a manner that was distinctive” (p. 179). To many, the Bixby House was the peak of Weber’s career.

The economic recession of 1937 resulted in fewer commissions. His work on developing the new Disney campus in Burbank got him through, but Walt Disney’s micromanagement and strict attention to efficiency resulted in a moderated version of modernism. At the outbreak of World War II, Weber attempted to harness the war effort to promote modern design by developing a prefabricated housing system to address government defense housing needs. Despite initial interest in his idea and months of discussions, no firms were ultimately willing to take the risk.

After World War II, Weber was tired. Though his creative energy had not failed him, he no longer pushed as hard as he had done for the previous thirty-five years. After 1948 most of his work was single-family houses in Southern California—less ambitious, but more secure. Long illustrates how, during these postwar years, Weber experimented with numerous styles, eventually settling into more angular and fragmented shapes with textured, layered surfaces. His most important work in this final decade was the studio and house that he built for himself. Perched on a rocky, wooded hillside, these two buildings reveal what Long calls “a new modernism—aggregate and complex” (p. 237). Somewhat reminiscent of Russel Wright’s Manitoga, the Mission Canyon studio and Tunnel Road house have an organic and warm feel. Weber was now rebelling against standardization and striving to create a more personal version of modernism.

Throughout the book, Long reminds us that there were many interpretations of modernism and that Weber’s own style was constantly changing. Much of this change was prompted, or even forced, by real-world issues: economic crisis, wartime needs or restrictions, and personal life experiences. Long’s access to Weber’s own voice through his personal correspondence allows for a much deeper understanding of these practical matters. This depth of information sometimes made the chronology hard to follow, and, at times, the author may have provided too much detail (at one point I felt that I was reading an annoying post on Facebook when I learned Weber ate rubbery chicken for dinner). However, these minor quibbles do not detract from the importance of this publication. Long admirably weaves together a personalized view into the early years of modern design in the United States. Attractively organized and lavishly illustrated, the book greatly enriches our understanding of both Kem Weber and American modern design.

Nonie Gadsden
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2015