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Lost Masterpiece: Wright to offer an important armchair by Walter von Nessen
Wright estimates that this masterpiece of the Art Deco era by Walter von Nessen will fetch $200,000-300,000.

CHICAGO, IL.- This important chair by Walter von Nessen is among the most visually arresting and memorable designs of the 20th century. A lost masterpiece of the Art Deco era, this superb design has resided within a private collection for the past forty years.

There is little documentation on this chair design by Walter von Nessen, but what does exist is very compelling. 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 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, illustrated in At Home in Manhattan: Modern Decorative Arts, 1925 to the Depression, shows this chair installed beneath a pyramid charged with lightning bolts.

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 this new vernacular in decorative arts. Macy’s exhibition featured a cadre of illustrious designs representing six countries from around the world with 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 also illustrated in the article “Metals in Interior Decoration” published in The Metal Arts in November of 1928 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 bronze to cut brass and curved aluminum. Walter von Nessen channeled the work of Edgar Brandt in the circular decoration 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; its inclusion in Alistair Duncan’s seminal book, American Art Deco, attests to its importance and place in the history of American design.

This lost masterpiece of Art Deco should have been a focal point of a collection in a major institution and had its history been different, it is possible that American decorative arts could have been significantly more influenced by the piece. It is pure luck that this chair was not lost to a landfill. Retrieved form a movie theater in upstate New York, a metal scrap hauler recognized this chair of many metals was worth more than simply the value of scrap. He contacted the current owners, who had sold a collection of Art Deco in New York in the late 1970s, to see if they were interested. When arriving in Manhattan with the chair in the back of a truck, the ownership was transferred and the chair remained with the current owners until now.

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