Milwaukee in the early 1900s was a wealthy city known for its manufacturing—including beer, leather, steam engines, and metal machinery.
Milwaukee’s industrialists brought cutting-edge technology to their businesses, and a few brought cutting-edge design into their homes.
For a new look, they could turn to interior architect George Mann Niedecken (American, 1878–1945), who revolutionized the upper-class homes in Milwaukee with a step forward from the cluttered interiors of the Victorian era.
The Museum collection has a wealth of drawings, objects, and archival information about our hometown designer that famously collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Recently, to honor the addition of several fantastic new artworks to the Museum’s Niedecken collection, a new installation was put together on the Museum’s lower level.
What’s the story?
Young George Mann Niedecken ventured through turn-of-the-century Germany, Austria, and Italy, recording in his sketchbooks the design maelstrom of the Arts & Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and the Secessionists. Returning to his home in Wisconsin, the designer collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright at the epicenter of the new “Prairie style” and the concept of that all parts of an interior—from rugs to drawer pulls—should harmonize.
One of Niedecken’s first Milwaukee commissions was in 1904 for Lawrence and Emma Demmer’s new home in the fashionable Water Tower District (2359 N. Wahl Avenue); the architects were the Milwaukee firm Buemming and Dick. Emma U. Demmer, a supporter of the Wisconsin School of Art where Niedecken taught classes, gave the young designer freedom to execute his most avant-garde project.
These art glass Windows, shown above flanking the Demmer Vanity with Mirror, show the bold Secessionist geometry that united Emma Demmer’s forward-looking light fixtures, textiles, and furniture. To her Milwaukee contemporaries, Niedecken’s objects likely appeared shocking with their strong geometry and reduced surface ornament. (Compare this look to what you might see at, say, Milwaukee’s Frederick Pabst Mansion.) Mrs. Demmer’s new taste was a step into the future, beyond the cluttered interiors of the Victorian era.
The Demmer family’s legacy of supporting design in Milwaukee continues to today.
Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Art Museum purchased the Demmer Vanity with Mirror, a Frank T. Boesel residence Armchair and Dining Table and Chairs, and Philip Ettenheim residence Serving Table using funds from the Mae E. Demmer Charitable Trust given in memory of Lawrence E. Demmer. Larry Demmer, who passed away in 2011, was the grandson of Emma U. Demmer and continued her philanthropic support of arts in Milwaukee.
From this generous gift, the Demmer Vanity with Mirror, the Boesel residence Armchair (shown just above) and the Ettenheim residence Serving Table (shown just below) are shown in this new lower level installation with a George Mann Niedecken painting of the landscape in Spring Green, Wisconsin that is on loan to the Museum.
All together, these artworks hint at the range of Niedecken’s designs. We see designs for glass and furniture, his hand in painting and in an iron shop advertisement. We see Modernism encroaching in his flaring geometries (like in the shape of the chair above) and the influence of the Arts & Crafts Movement in many ways, including the featured oak surfaces like on the Serving Table below.
In 2008, the Museum celebrated the artist, his contributions to 20th-century design, and the phenomenal collection in our care with the A Revolutionary in Milwaukee: The Designs of George Mann Niedecken exhibition.
For more information on the Cyril Colnik ironwork and Niedecken design for a Colnik advertisement also on view in this installation, visit this blog post on the Colnik iron Hanging Basket.
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.