May 28, 2010
William Lescaze: Early Interiors
Continuing my research on the career of William Lescaze, I thought it worth returning to Lescaze’s New York projects of the late 1920s, which comprise almost entirely interiors. Lanmon notes that in 1928, Lescaze wrote to Le Corbusier complaining that all he ever got commissioned to design was interiors – restaurants, private apartments, retail interiors and exhibition rooms – and Corbu replied sympathetically: “That's the way it always is. I didn't do anything myself for years, besides writing articles and giving lectures. Keep it up.” (in Lanmon 1987: 37) But despite Lescaze’s frustration at not being commissioned to design complete modernist buildings, his early interiors contributed to the growing sense of modernity in 1920s America. Although I haven’t done exhaustive research here, I thought it was worth sharing these images and what little information I have found, as these projects are not widely known nor are the images readily available. All of these projects were completed before Lescaze’s partnership with George Howe and the well-known Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building (1929-32).
Above: Capital Bus Terminal, 239 West 50th St and 240-242 West 51st St, New York, 1927. I can find very little information on this building, although it does seem to reflect Lescaze’s knowledge of European modernism and seems fittingly designed for a relatively modern form of mass transportation.
Above: Display room for department store Frederick Loeser and Company, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 1928. Includes Lescaze-designed furniture.
Above: Display room, penthouse studio apartment, Macy’s Department Store exhibition, “International Art in Industry”, 1928. This exhibition also included exhibition rooms by designers such as Josef Hoffmann, Gio Ponti and Kem Weber.
Above: Showroom, Andrew Geller Shoe Factory, Brooklyn, 1928.
Lescaze’s design here is austere and efficient, a retail space stripped back to essential display and furnishings. The color scheme was neutral and Lescaze here displayed his interest in recessed lighting. The Andrew Geller Shoe company was formed by Andrew Geller in 1910 and manufactured upscale shoes. Geller’s nephew, Bertram Geller began designing shoes for the company around the time of the Lescaze commission. Bertram Geller continued the family patronage of modern architecture by commissioning Marcel Breuer to design the influential Geller House, in 1945, and then another house, Geller House II (interior), between 1959 and 1969 (both in Lawrence, Long Island). Marcel Breuer and Associates later redesigned the Andrew Geller company offices and showroom in Manhattan in 1975 (see the Smithsonian Institute’s Breuer archive).
Above: Leopold Stokowski studio apartment, East 71st Street, 1929.
English-born conductor Leopold Stokowski moved to New York in 1905 to work as an organist and choir director. After further study in Paris, he returned to the US to work as a conductor in Cincinnati and became known as a passionate advocate for modern music by living composers. In 1912, Stokowski became conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and his reputation for modern music expanded to include his flamboyant showmanship, which included conducting without a baton and altering the seating of the orchestra. As a committed modernist, he also maintained a life-long interest in modern concert hall acoustics and the latest technological advances in sound reproduction. In Philadelphia, Stokowski continued to premier and champion modern music, including that of modern composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.
Lescaze’s New York pied-à-terre for the composer was a studio apartment designed for mobile lifestyle and for a cosmopolitan modern individual – the open space, built-in furniture and flat surfaces stripped of ornament and all historical references cohere into a complete environment, a unity of form, color and space similar to what European modernists were doing in the 1920s. The emphasis on coziness, warmth, decorative and luxurious surfaces that was so popular with the New York bourgeoisie, is completely absent. Lescaze’s painterly abstraction and embrace of a new, universal aesthetic not only self-consciously reject tradition, but also pare back sensory distractions so the inhabitant might focus on higher thoughts. Stokowski’s studio apartment is an economic living space organized in rational manner, its built-in cabinetry, geometric carpet and austere furniture, all designed by Lescaze, suggest a holistic machine built for modern convenience. In this commission, Lescaze clearly understood the modernist ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk and in Stokowski, he presumably found a client with complementary modernist ideals.
Finally, Stokowski was responsible for getting Lescaze the commission to design a new building for the Oak Lane Country Day School in 1929 (sketch above and photos below). Stokowski was a parent at the school and provided funding for a new nursery wing designed by Lescaze. Oak Lane was a progressive school founded in 1916, and in 1924, the school counted philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey among its advisory board members. In the late 1920s, the school’s headmaster William Curry’s educational philosophy was based on modern progressive education principles: “firstly, an enhanced concern for individual children and their way of learning, secondly, the need for pupil participation in school governance, thirdly, a resistance to uninformed parents forcing their views of education upon teachers.” (Dudek 2000: 22) In 1931, Curry moved to Dartington Hall school in England, where he commissioned more Lescaze-designed educational buildings. In these last two examples, the Stokowski apartment and the Oak Lane school, Lescaze’s modernist design not only serves to self-consciously reject traditional design, values and hierarchies, but explicitly emphasizes individuality as the basis for a new modern society.
Dudek, Mark, Architecture of Schools: New Learning Environments, Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000.
Lanmon, Lorraine Welling, William Lescaze, Architect, Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1987.
Leopold Stokowski: Making Music Matter, an University of Pennsylvania Library Special Collection exhibition.