Friday, April 16, 2010

Niedecken: A Household Name?

By Jim Koenig, Steak Sandwich and Furniture Aficionado 

Architecture and Design scholars have long known of the collaboration between Frank Lloyd Wright and George M. Niedecken, but attributing some works to one designer or another has been a difficult task. Niedecken was a Milwaukee-based “Interior Architect” in the Arts & Crafts style. Early in each of their careers, the two men crossed paths, the earliest meeting documented as the showing of their individual work at an exhibition of the Chicago Arts & Crafts Society in 1898. Niedecken was subsequently employed, in various capacities, by Wright from 1904 through 1918 at his Oak Park studio. Collaborative commissions on everything from furniture design to murals were completed for prominent Prairie houses such as Coonley, Robie, May, Irving, and Bock.

Presentation drawing for the Living room of the Coonley House from the Wasmuth portfolio, 1911.

At the Martin House, we have been exploring the possibility of collaboration between Wright and Niedecken on interior furnishings and d√©cor. Because of the Warhol-like “Factory” arrangement of Wright’s Oak Park studio, it is often hard to attribute a design or idea to anyone other than Wright, who absorbed the credit for all commissions. However, the Niedecken-attributed designs at Prairie houses contemporary to Martin, paired with his employment by Wright during the furnishing of the house suggest a possible collaboration between the two designers on aspects of the Buffalo commission.

While we may never be sure what Niedecken’s involvement was at the Martin House (if any), designs for subsequent commissions can lead us to substantiated inferences. Two excellent publications on Niedecken by Cheryl Robertson (Frank Lloyd Wright and George Mann Niedecken – Prairie School Collaborators and The Domestic Scene, 1897-1927: George M. Niedecken, Interior Architect) have drawn some important parallels for us. Niedecken’s art glass designs for the Henry Harnischferger House in Milwaukee echo the efflorescent “pots” of Wright’s “Tree of Life” windows. Also, his work with Wright on a library table for the Bock house illustrates a logical progression to the table designed for the Martin’s residence.

With further research and documentation, the architectural museum of the Martin House might one day bear the name George Mann Niedecken along with Frank Lloyd Wright.

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