Kem Weber Desk/Chair

Kem Weber Desk/Chair
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This desk and chair was part of the room Kem Weber designed for the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) in San Francisco. Trained in Germany as a cabinetmaker and, later, as an architect and interior designer, Weber was the first of the great European émigré designers to come to California. Working for his teacher, architect Bruno Paul (a pioneer of German modernism), Weber traveled to San Francisco in 1914 to supervise the construction of the German section of the Panama Pacific World’s Fair. World War I intervened, and he was forced to stay in the United States. After the war he moved to Santa Barbara and then to Los Angeles, establishing himself as a successful industrial designer. From 1921 to 1927 he was the art director for the furniture store Barker Bothers, creating the Modes and Manners shop, one of the first to introduce modern design to California. In 1927 he opened his own studio in Hollywood, and had a wide ranging practice designing homes, interiors, and custom furniture as well as producing designs for furniture, silver, and clocks for manufacturers across the country.

By the end of the 1930s, Weber was focused mostly on interiors and architecture, and had achieved a national reputation for an inventive style that fit within the tenets of angular, pared down European modernism, but was less formal, characterized by aerodynamically inspired streamlining. Such was his renown that textile designer Dorothy Liebes, who was the director of the Decorative Arts section for the GGIE, invited him to install a room there. The importance of this commission in disseminating California design cannot be overstated – about a third of the invited rooms were by architects from the state, and they were displayed with those by international masters such as Marcel Breuer, Josef Frank, and Alvar Aalto. Millions of people saw these rooms and got their ideas for furnishing modern homes from them.

The desk, which has not been seen publically since the GGIE, is the embodiment of California modern, combining beautiful satinwood with the new materials of Bakelite and chrome plated steel. It was a custom design specially made for the room and shown at the GGIE with the equally innovative plywood chair. We don’t know if the chair was designed specifically for the GGIE since it also appears in a drawing for an office that was part of another critically important commission for Weber – the site plan, all buildings, and furnishings for Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, also completed around the same time, in 1938-1939.

(Wendy Kaplan, Department Head and Curator of Decorative Arts and Design)
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