Copper in the Arts

July 2013

Lost Masterpiece: Wright to offer an important armchair by Walter von Nessen

Art deco chair Wright Auctions estimates that this masterpiece of the Art Deco era by Walter von Nessen will fetch $200,000-300,000.

Photograph courtesy of Wright Auctions

Wright, the premier auction house specializing in modern and contemporary design, recently auctioned off a cast bronze and cut brass chair on June 6 by Walter von Nessen that is considered to  be among the most visually arresting and memorable designs of the 20th century.

A lost masterpiece of the Art Deco era, this superb design resided within a private collection for the past forty years. There was 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 was 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 Decoratifs 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 Emile-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.

It is pure luck that this chair was not lost to a landfill. Retrieved from 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. 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.


Wright, 1440 W Hubbard St., Chicago, IL, (312) 563-0020

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