Description & Technical information
From the dining room of Rudolf Noureev
Christian Witt-Doerring, curator at the Neue Galerie, NY, writes:
Josef Urban trained as an architect between 1890-94 with Karl von Hasenauer at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Alongside several architectural work, his oeuvre during his time in Vienna focused above all on designing interiors, exhibitions and stage sets. In 1912, he emigrated to America with an appointment as chief scenic designer for the Boston Opera. His American career features not only architectural work like the New School for Social Research in New York, 1930, a fair number of villas, mainly for the very wealthy American bourgeoisie in Palm Beach (Mar-a-lago for Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1924-27), and first and foremost his work in stage and film design (Metropolitan Opera New York and the Ziegfeld Follies). His experience in Europe paved the way for his becoming the most influential innovator in American film design. His talent and interest in interior design and his Viennese roots predestined him to represent the Wiener Werkstätte in America. In 1922, in a display he designed himself, he opened the branch of the Wiener Werkstätte of America on Fifth Avenue 581-583 in New York.
Around 1900, the manufacturers of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy were starting to recognise and exploit the economic potential of the artistic and creative forces that were in the air. One of the initial enterprises was a cooperation between the long established Austrian bent wood company Gebrüder Thonet and graduates of the school of applied arts. Josef Urban designed chair no. 405 for the company. It was offered on sale to the public for the first time in 1905 in the supplement to the Thonet sales catalogue of 1904, which showed three different versions. The cheapest version without metal sabots on the legs then cost 15 crowns, while the version with brass sabots cost 23 crowns, and the one with nickel-plated brass mounts 24 crowns.
The great quality of Urban’s design lies in its capacity to serve traditional and prestigious alongside modern and utilitarian functions. We can get a convincing picture of this quality by viewing the chair in Rudolf Nureyev’s dining room in his Paris apartment. Within the context of this room, mainly characterised by accents of the eighteenth century, they blend in perfectly without sacrificing their individuality. A prestigious dining-room chair requires a high backrest; this inspires Urban to the masterly ploy of combining it visually with the seat in one dynamic momentum. He doesn’t puff it up with traditional upholstery, but combines these two structural elements with each other by setting a piece of leather flat into the two wooden frames. Urban sets round, decorative brass studs next to each other into the frames along the contours of this piece of leather, giving the effect of a continuous pearl band and emphasising the unity of backrest and seat. Another quality of this chair has to be seen in the perfect harmony expressed between angular and round elements. Urban juxtaposes the flatness of seat and backrest area with the rounded corners of the front edges of the seat and also of the backrest. A corresponding relationship is seen in the round front legs and the square back legs. The chair’s modernity is realised finally in the clear optical separation between seat frame and seating area, and the lack of upholstery. Thus the leather band seems to float in the air and not block space.
Refs.: Thonet Bentwood & Other Furniture. The 1904 illustrated catalogue with the 1905-6 and 1907 Supplements and Price Lists in German and English; Dover Publication Inc., New York 1980, p. 117
The Art-Revival in Austria (The Studio Special Issue), ed. by Charles Holme, London, 1906, p. 61 (ill.)
Period: 20th century
Medium: Black stained beechwood, Brass, Original leather
Dimensions: 98 x 40 x 52.5 cm (38⁵/₈ x 15³/₄ x 20⁵/₈ inches)
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20th Century Decorative Art