George Niedecken’s reputation is that of a masterful Prairie School interior architect. However, because he worked as a collaborator to the master Prairie School architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, Niedecken’s legacy is often diminished. In addition to his famous collaborations on Wright’s Robie House (Chicago, Illinois) and Bogk House (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Niedecken was committed to new American styles for the twentieth century right here in Milwaukee. He studied the European Art Nouveau, Secessionist, and Arts and Crafts movements in Paris and Berlin, and applied these ideas to inspired designs for the living rooms of his Midwestern clients.
George Mann Niedecken (American, 1878–1945) was born, raised, and flourished throughout his career in Milwaukee. For his interior commissions, he practiced the idea of total design, uniting the visions of the architect, interior designers, craftsmen, and client into one harmonious expression. Some of his fresh ideas about new shapes must have appeared shocking, but he stayed busy on a roster of projects for Milwaukee’s successful industrialists. The interiors that he created for these elite clients ranged from the honest expression of Arts and Crafts, the soft curvilinear naturalism of Art Nouveau, and the history-minded Colonial Revival to the delicate geometry of the Vienna Secessionist and Wiener Werkstätte.
Above is an impressive multi-functioning Writing Desk, Daybed, and Lamp for the living room of the Irving residence, a Frank Lloyd Wright designed project. Although Wright often gets credit for the entirety of his design programs, it is clear from correspondence that Niedecken had autonomy in the furniture designs and made several changes to original plans. Wright Studio’s original scheme for the Irving home had an open floor plan with a scattered furniture arrangement. In reply, Niedecken offered furniture pieces that served as low room dividers to accommodate the smaller groups he believed people preferred to socialize in. The above Writing Desk, Daybed, and Lamp broke up the large living space and defined an intimate furniture cluster near the fireplace.
On Milwaukee’s otherwise Victorian highly ornamented Grand Avenue, industrialist Henry Harnischfeger commissioned German émigré architect Eugene Liebert to design a mansion in the new-fangled aesthetic of restraint and simplicity. Liebert turned to Niedecken for the interior, including designs for the above Transom Window. The window shows the simplified horse chestnut bloom that Niedecken incorporated into the Harnischfeger home’s built-in dining room sideboard and exterior windows. The natural imagery and central swooping curvilinear line on this ornament most closely align with designs favored by the European Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil (“youth style”) in the German-speaking countries.
This small Dainty Cabinet was part of the reception room in the Adam J. Mayer house (Milwaukee), whose interior Niedecken united around a painted mural of a Wisconsin birch grove. In all earth tones and featuring curly birch on the interior woodwork and furniture, Niedecken’s work for this scheme relates to Prairie School architecture ideas of looking to local midwestern plants and landscape for interior design inspiration.
We currently have five Niedecken designs on view in the Museum’s 20th-century Design Gallery, but the Museum’s Niedecken archive collection contains thousands of plans and sketches for interior designs, including furniture, rugs, window treatments, lighting, and murals, as well as office records, documents, furniture catalogs, and vintage photographs of Niedecken-designed interiors. Below are images of a few:
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.