Lost Masterpiece

An Important Armchair by Walter von Nessen

A lost masterpiece of the Art Deco era, this important chair by Walter von Nessen has a compelling history. In 1928, this work was included in the International Exposition of Art in Industry at Macy’s, New York; it is one of two chairs by von Nessen listed in the exhibition checklist alongside designs by K.E.M. Weber, and Paul Frankl and others representing American design. It is assumed that the chairs were a matching pair; however the whereabouts of another example is unknown. A period photograph from the exhibition in At Home in Manhattan: Modern Decorative Arts, 1925 to the Depression, illustrates this chair.

This chair featured in situ at the International Exposition of Art in Industry in 1928.

The International Exposition of Art in Industry was coordinated in response to the 1925 L’Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, a defining moment in Art Deco style where the radically new aesthetic made its debut to an international audience eager for an alternative to postwar austerity. Emphasis had shifted from production to consumption as skilled craftsmen, artists and designers embraced machine age methods to create a new vernacular in decorative arts. Macy’s exhibition featured a cadre of illustrious designs representing six countries from around the world including works by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Bruno Paul, Josef Hoffmann, Ilonka Karasz and Edgar Brandt. This important chair was among the American designs linking the United States to modern progress in applied design.

This chair was illustrated in the article "Metals in Interior Decoration" published in The Metal Arts in November of 1928; it was featured as an example of what was possible when utilizing metals in “Furniture, Fitments and Accessories.” This chair, a confluence of the decade’s myriad iconographies from ancient Egypt to Bauhaus, is a tour-de-force of form and material, encapsulating various techniques from cast and cut brass to curved aluminum. Walter von Nessen channeled the work of Edgar Brandt in the circular medallion of the armrest, while showcasing the trend for streamlining by curving a flat plane of aluminum to create the support structure. An echo of an Egyptian ziggurat is evident in the cut out of the base and the applied decoration to the backrest, while the mix of the curvilinear and rectilinear, a hallmark of many great designs by von Nessen, is seen in the overall elevation and profile of the form.

After showcasing this work in the International Exposition of Art in Industry, Walter von Nessen’s name rose in international prominence. His modest studio in New York would grow as he became an enduringly popular designer and industry trailblazer. Walter von Nessen’s interpretations of Art Deco style would come to define the era; the inclusion of this chair in Alistair Duncan’s seminal book, American Art Deco, attests to its importance and place in the history of American design.

For the past forty years, this important armchair has resided within a private collection; this is the first time it has been presented to the market.