Art Deco Material from The Estate of Michael Rabkin
by Don Schmaltz, Senior Specialist for Modern Design,
and Carl Liggett, Specialist for Modern Design
Toomey & Co.’s Art & Design with Tradition & Innovation auction on December 8, 2019 included a significant offering of early modern American design. Most items were from The Estate of Michael Rabkin. After moving into a West Los Angeles home that was designed by architect Lloyd Wright in 1937 for the family of English cellist Walker Evans, Michael and Ginger Rabkin endeavored to return the property to its former glory.
Hooked on Modernism
This renovation process was profiled in a feature in the July 1995 issue of Architectural Digest. In addition to structural rehabilitation, the Rabkins became enamored with modern design and collected furniture and objects appropriate to the interior style of the home. “We got hooked on modernism,” said Michael Rabkin, “and began collecting American pieces as we restored the house.”
Michael Rabkin discovered from photographs that the Evanses had had the same idea, furnishing their residence with low tables and sectional seating by Gilbert Rohde, a New York-born designer whose work embraced the spirit of the era.
Thanks in large part to the Rabkins, Art & Design with Tradition & Innovation on December 8, 2019 presented an unusually comprehensive representation of American Moderne design, prominently featuring the work of Gilbert Rohde, as well as that of other early American modern designers, including Paul Frankl, Russel Wright, Wolfgang Hoffmann, Donald Deskey, David Robertson Smith, and Warren McArthur.
Art Deco and American Streamline Moderne
American Moderne, or Streamline Moderne, can be seen as a response to ‘Art Deco,’ which is a term derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The World Fairs were trade shows meant to exhibit the best production offerings around the globe, but the 1925 exhibition did have more exclusive rules:
Works admitted to the Exposition must show new inspiration and real originality. They must be executed and presented by artists, artisans, and manufacturers who have created models and by editors who represent the modern decorative and industrial arts. Reproductions, imitations, and counterfeits of ancient styles will be strictly prohibited.
The United States was invited to participate in the fair, but Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover ultimately opted out because it was his assessment that there was no original American modern design to present at the time. For separate reasons, Germany, where modern design had already begun to take root, was not invited to participate in the fair.
Despite a handful of modern exhibits such as Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau and Konstantine Melnikov’s Russian Pavilion, the fair was dominated by design we now know as French Art Deco, including work by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Lalique, and Dominique.
These beautiful works may have fit into the exhibition’s rules due to their originality of style, but they were also a comfortable transition from Neoclassical norms. Most designers showed luxurious objects with intricate craftsmanship and expensive materials geared toward wealthy buyers. Despite their quality and originality, the products on offer at the fair were largely opulent goods meant to solidify French hegemony in the luxury trade.
Gilbert Rohde’s Boldly Modern Design
In the United States, shortly after the influential Paris exposition, Gilbert Rohde had resolved that his life’s pursuit would be in the field of furniture and interior design and foresaw a new path forward for American design. In 1927, he traveled to Europe, spending time in both Paris and at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany.
Although we might describe the collected works from The Rabkin Estate as generally Art Deco in style, the process and style Rohde brought back to the United States can also be seen as somewhere between French Art Deco and the Bauhaus. In Rohde’s designs, attractive veneers are still utilized, but in a way better suited to high-quality mass production. Elaborate details and handwork are minimized, but the Art Deco style remains. Many lines also incorporate chrome-plated steel, a Bauhaus favorite.
In 1932, Rohde was made director of design for Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan by president D.J. De Pree. For the next decade, Rohde oversaw the creation of several groundbreaking collections. By 1940, Rohde would convince Herman Miller to stop reproducing period furniture in favor of wholly modern designs.
Rohde’s Modular Furniture
Among Rohde’s contributions to modern design was the introduction of modular furniture to the American market, an idea likely gathered during his visit to the Bauhaus. His Executive Office Group, comprised of 137 configurable elements, was the first comprehensive and interchangeable office system offered in the United States. This modular idea was also expressed in Rohde’s Combination Chairs and his East India Laurel Group line of furniture.
Rohde’s Trendsetting Materials and Forms
Rohde’s innovative use of new materials echoed this direction towards luxury made accessible to the middle class. Fabrikoid, a material developed by Rohde in association with Dupont, replaced leather and wrapped legs and cabinetry. Bakelite replaced ivory in drawer handles. Cast metal and tubular steel replaced hand-carvings. And attractive veneers were chosen economically for their inherent beauty and applied without elaborate inlay work.
Rohde’s ‘biomorphic’ designs also predicted the future of American modern design, and remain among his most appealing forms. With Rohde and the collection presented here, Art Deco became ‘Moderne’ design made accessible to the middle class, a uniquely American path forward in its lightness, accessibility, and optimistic style.
Other Important Designers from The Rabkin Estate
Beyond Gilbert Rohde, Michael and Ginger Rabkin assembled an impressive collection of furniture items by additional early modern American designers. Below are selected examples from Paul Frankl, Donald Deskey, David Robertson Smith, and Wolfgang Hoffman.
Prototype Chests from Warren McArthur
The two prototype chests by Warren McArthur seen below are not from The Rabkin Estate, but they complemented this offering of early modern American design quite well. Here is some background information from the Art & Design with Tradition & Innovation catalog for December 8, 2019:
Early mid-century furniture designer Warren McArthur has experienced a renaissance in the last few decades. His tubular aluminum furniture with internal steel supports is now appreciated for its originality and durability. McArthur ingeniously developed lightweight yet sturdy furniture with pronounced joints that are incorporated into the overall aesthetic. These McArthur prototype chests were designed in 1934 as part of The Schafer Collection (for McArthur’s upholstery foreman, Don Schafer) once the Warren McArthur Corporation had moved from Los Angeles to Rome, New York. (For full details, visit the lot detail pages of these chests.)
Contemporary Reinventions of Art Deco
Art Deco was one of the most glamorous periods in design history and hints of it have been popping up on the high-end interiors market recently. While various design styles later superseded Art Deco in prominence during the extended mid-century modern period and in the late 20th century, several designers and artists are now taking inspiration from and repurposing Art Deco.
Two notable examples profiled in Architectural Digest are Milan’s playfully iconoclastic design house Dimore Gallery and eclectic British sculptor and designer Faye Toogood. In 2017, Dimore unveiled its first line of decorative objects, with an abundance of pastels and metallics, which were both often employed by the original Art Deco designers. In 2015, Faye Toogood’s fiberglass furniture collection was exhibited at Studio Oliver Gustav in Copenhagen. These soothingly grounded works leverage Art Deco design concepts while making use of African forms and geometrical notions from the 1960s.
Clearly, looking back to the past at Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and related early modern styles enables contemporary designers to create dramatic furniture and decorative items that delight current buyers with refreshingly simple yet timeless luxury.