October 12, 2014


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Lot 383: KEM Weber

Lot 383: KEM Weber

Airline chair

Custom designed 1934-35
Airline Chair Company
Retains "Walt Disney Productions" label and branded
30.75" x 37" x 25"
Literature: Kaplan, Wendy. Living In a Modern Way, California Design 1930-1965. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. p 71.
Estimate: $12,000 - $15,000
Price Realized: $15,000
Inventory Id: 16383

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The Berlin-born and trained architect and designer KEM Weber (1889-1963) arrived in the United States in 1914, during the initial wave of progressive Central European architects, designers and artists. Weber, along with Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, Paul T. Frankl and Ilonka Karasz, would profoundly affect the course of American modernism.

Weber ("KEM" was a self-styled acronym for his given name: Karl Emanuel Martin) was an accidental immigrant. He had been sent to San Francisco by his teacher-turned-employer, the great proto-modernist architect Bruno Paul, to oversee an exhibition installation. Marooned by the outbreak of World War I, Weber was unfazed for he had quickly grown to love California. Gaining U.S. citizenship in 1924, Weber's early years in America were difficult. When design commissions were hard to find, he took jobs as a lumberjack, chicken farmer, and art school teacher.

But in 1921, impressed by his portfolio, the Barker Bros. department store of Los Angeles hired Weber. Five years later Weber persuaded the store—the largest furniture retailer in the United States at the time—to open a new full-floor department devoted to modern design. Weber delivered lectures on modernism nationwide and won a reputation as a champion of a new, clean and elegant style. It is a measure of his prominence that, in 1928, the Friedman Silver Company of Brooklyn issued a KEM Weber signature line of silver-plated tea and coffee services, cocktail shakers, and barware. Pieces from that collection (Lot 382) were the cutting edge of style, sharing the same striking, tiered geometries as Paul T. Frankl's famous and simultaneously-produced "Skyscraper" furniture.

Weber's undoubted masterpiece is the Airline chair (designed 1934-35). The chair has become an emblem of 20th century design, and appears in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it was a centerpiece of the landmark 2011-2012 exhibition California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way."

The Airline chair was the realization of Weber's career-long goal: to achieve a wholly American form of modern design—sleek, trim, and stylish; yet comfortable, easygoing, and practical. With its raked, gently angular frame and cantilevered seat, the form of the chair suggests movement, speed, and forward progression. Weber named it the Airline chair to associate the design with the signal technological triumph of the day: commercial aviation.

In a practical innovation far ahead of its time, the Airline chair was designed to be sold flat-packed in segments for easy home assembly. The design seemed perfect for mass-production, but Weber was never able to convince a major manufacturer to take it on. One problem may have been the price: $24.75 was more than the average worker 's weekly salary in the Depression years. In the end, fewer than 300 Airline chairs were produced. Most of those were bought by the Walt Disney Company in 1939 for use in the projection rooms and executive offices of its Burbank animation studios, for which Weber was the project architect. Today, surviving examples of the Airline chair rarely come to market.

"Airline Chair." The Collections. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.
Long, Christopher. "The Bixby House." The Magazine Antiques. Brant Publications, New York, Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.
Long, Christopher. "KEM Weber and the Rise of Modern Design in Southern California." The Magazine Antiques. Brant Publications, New York, May 2009. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.
Marks, Ben, Et Al. "KEM Weber: The Mid-Century Modern Designer Who Paved the Way for IKEA." Collectors Weekly. San Francisco, 04 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.
"Statistics of Income 1934." (n.d.): n. pag. Internal Revenue Service. Washington, D.C. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.