Karl Emanuel Martin Weber, known simply as “Kem”,was a German furniture and industrial designer, architect, art director and teacher, who notably pioneered the’Streamline’ style.
From the Old World to the New
Born in Berlin, Germany, Karl Emanuel Martin Weber began his tutelage, at the local Kunstgewerbeschule (School of applied arts), under the architect Bruno Paul, who guided him through the design and supervision of the German Pavilion‘s construction, at the 1910 International Exposition in Brussels. By 1912, he’d graduate, and began working in Paul’s very own studio.
However, his career would lead him away from Germany, and open up a brand new horizon: the construction of a second pavilion would prove to be an unexpected turning point, and as a consequence Paul would decide to send him to San Francisco, to supervise on the German pavilion being built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. However, the onset of World War I would prevent him from returning to Germany, and with the suspension of the pavilion’s construction, he was de facto stranded in California.
Suffering from the anti-German sentiment of the time, he’d retire for a few years, including an art teaching phase, in Santa Barbara, throughout 1918; finally, in 1921, he was noticed by the Barker Brothers whom, impressed by his talent, made him their Art Director. Having received full fledged American citizenship in 1924, Weber, through the 1920s, was in charge of designing several lines of modern furniture. After changing his name to the americanized “Kem”, combining his initials, he tried to introduce European Modernism to the company, resulting, after much convincing, in the 1926 opening of the new Modes and Manners shop, whose jagged shapes, startling colors, and frenzied patterns made it stand out like nothing before.
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Weber curated every detail of the new shop, from the wall treatments to the display cases; the shop offered a vast assortment of products, furniture and lamps, an extensive textile department, silver and metal accessories, and even a dining room for guests, all with the lastest and most chic furnishings: one could buy something as small as an ashtray to an entire, custom-designed interior set.
Customers are assured that occasional pieces…will look perfectly at home and be quite correct in conventionally furnished rooms and that they will add a delightful modern accent.
– A reporter from the “Good Furniture” magazine, detailing the shop and its relationship with clients
In 1927, after feeling held back by the company’s approach, he left Barker Brothers (but remained as design consultant) and opened his design studio in Los Angeles, enstablishing himself as an independent Hollywood firm, often working on movie sets and private residences.
Weber designed furniture for Higgins Mfg.Co., Meyers Co., Berkley and Gay, Karpen Furniture Co., Noha Furniture Co., Grand Rapids Furniture Co., and Lloyd Mfg. Co, as well asa line of modern clocks for the Lawson Clock Co.
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Weber was especially eager to explore the possibilities offered by new materials and production methods, from tubular metal to the new man-made materials that were beginning to appear in the marketplace. He was also interested in investigating new approaches for constructing furniture, moving away from traditional forms of joinery and support. He worked on an idea:“Bentlock” furniture, which relied on bent hardwood. The technique produced a distinctive and novel cast for his pieces, but as it proved impractical, he eventually abandoned it.
Weber’s production was halted by World War II’s outbreak, and his attempts to interest the government in a panelized, defense-oriented construction system for housing projects fell on deaf ears. After the war, he moved back to Santa Barbara, where he kept working as a house architect; he would die in 1963.
What were the main features of Weber’s Style?
Many of his designs can be classified as ‘Streamline Moderne’, which was a popular style in contemporary architecture, as well as in the industrial designs of his contemporaries such as Raymond Loewy.
Airline Chair (1934) probably was his most famous work , was an early form of furniture meant to be sold to the consumer in separate parts, leaving the final assembly to the user himself, at home (like IKEA). It exemplified the clean, streamlined style of the age, but unfortunately for living rooms everywhere, the design did not catch on and only about 200 were ever produced. California’s Walt Disney Studios office complex purchased many of the limited 1934 production.