A Quiet Revolutionary

May. 22, 2008
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Milwaukee interior architect George Mann Niedecken visited Europe during a time when the curlicues of art nouveau were being succeeded by purer geometric forms of Viennese Secession in an atmosphere increasing opposed to 19th century historicism. According to John Eastberg, senior historian at the Pabst Mansion, the visit made a deep and lasting impression on the young designer. He talks to us about Niedecken’s achievements in the context of turn-of-the-century Milwaukee.

The Niedecken exhibit you curated at Milwaukee Art Museum is entitled “A Revolutionary in Milwaukee.” In what respect were Niedecken’s designs revolutionary?

Well from my viewpoint he brought something to Milwaukee that no other artist, designer or decorator brought to Milwaukee during the beginning part of the 20the century and that was a European experience and exposure to the Viennese Secessionist movement and the Jugentsil movement in Germany and the Art Nouveau in Paris. And so because he was able to travel to Europe in the between 1899 and 1902 and go to all the major expositions of that period he was able to absorb that and incorporate that into his designs and he comes up with these really fascinating and revolutionary interiors for these rather typical exterior Milwaukee homes and then he creates these extraordinary interiors that are incorporating all of the latest European designs at that point. And even Frank Lloyd Wright, who’s always hailed as being so forward thinking- really doesn’t have a chance to go to Europe until about 10 years after Niedecken so his personal experience comes much later and I think Niedecken’s edgier designs reflect that.

To my eyes his furniture has a ponderous quality that doesn’t match the elegance of his drawings and murals. Would you agree?

I would agree in the sense that he was an artist first and foremost…that is where his training was. I think he tries to find any way he can to bring the visual arts to his decorative interiors. Through murals, through stencils and designs for art glass and custom rugs- I think that ‘s a way of bringing this artistic expression to his interiors. I think his furniture designs are clearly coming out of the Vienna Secession movement – making everything a geometric succession. He studied for a very brief period with [Alphonse] Mucha so his graphic designs have a slight art nouveau influence. But you’re absolutely right – his furniture is much more geometric and has that influence more from Vienna than it does from Paris. So a lot of people see his early work and see the prairie movement but I always hearken back a little earlier to the secessionist movement as being really where Niedecken was really trying to design from.

You gave that lecture series at the Pabst on the orientalist trappings of Victorian interiors. How do the Japanese influences on work of Wright and Niedecken fit into that idea of orientalism?

Well when I’ve lectured on the Niedecken topic I've always said we can’t look at it from the viewpoint of the 21st century looking backwards because we can see modern furniture in his designs but you use the Pabst Mansion – or at least that’s what I always tell people to do – as background then you really see how revolutionary his designs were because they were rebelling against everything that the American gilded age interior stood for – all the accoutrements of these homes. He was really trying to move into that more harmonious cohesive Spartan interior design that simplified design and got rid of all the fussiness typical of the 1890s. Even some of his renderings from late ‘90s he’s trying to express a late Victorian attitude towards furniture but abandons that after his trip to Europe.

How were his designs have been received at the time?

They would have seemed very ordered and I think in Milwaukee he would have had an American German clientele that was still traveling to Europe during those years and would have first have experience of these interiors and those select people who understood what was going on in terms of modern design in Europe between 1902 and 1910 – these were the people that Niedecken resonated with. They understood this simplified style. I don’t think by and large this was a large popular movement…but I think the interesting thing about his clients…was that that they’re homes were very traditional on the exterior and so there’s this interesting boldness on the interior…that’s very telling of where Milwaukeeans and his clients were at the turn of the 20th century.

Niedecken’s work is often seen exclusively in relation to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School. You’ve made a conscious decision here to avoid overstressing this connection…

Niedecken is always under the large umbrella of Frank Lloyd Wright and I think Niedecken on his own had very interesting ideas that lived for a relatively short period of time before world war one, where is experimenting with these European design ideas and concepts that Wright wasn’t particularly interested in to the same extent. I really wanted to pull him out and look at his designs for Milwaukee because he only worked with Wright on one Milwaukee commission and that was toward the end of their partnership in 1916 (they did about 12 commissions between 1904 and 1917 together). I really kind of wanted to look at Niedecken apart from Wright because it really hadn’t been done before.

And you clearly feel it holds up well on it’s own.

Well I think it’s a moment in time- very avant-garde for its day. Some of the furniture still looks futuristic to me in some respects and his ability to execute geometric forms in his murals and stencils are really going to be his legacy because they are very unusual, very visually stimulating and really exhibit an influence that nobody else was bringing to Milwaukee at that point.

I think that he was very important in the context of the times in that he was this young protégé of m Milwaukee’s artistic community – he was 12 years old when he entered the art school and I think what better city if you had that inclination in the early 1890s to be in- there was such an interest in this in Milwaukee an people really wanted to support that.

Why is this a good time to revisit his work?

Well the growing interest and discussion about the arts and crafts movement is part of it. I think that’s a very popular thing. The idea of craft and individualistic design has always fascinated people and the more we get away from that in our lives it’s a fascinating idea- creating a harmonious interior for one individual…its clear this wasn’t going to go on forever and ww1 kind of ends that.

The “A Revolutionary in Milwaukee: The Designs of George Mann Niedecken” is located in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Koss Gallery and runs through July 20. It includes furniture, art-glass windows, drawings, photos and more. Eastberg gives a Gallery Talk about the exhibit on July 8, 1:30 p.m. in the Koss Gallery.


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