Macassar ebony and second-generation leather
Manufactured by Schmeig, Hungate & Kotzian, New York
Both stamped 8004 46923 and with firm's mark
33 1/2 in. (85.1 cm) high
American modernist designs of the interwar era rarely match their European counterparts in the quality of design and fabrication, but the Rockefeller-Milton-Deskey chairs are an important exception to that rule. These chairs represent a convergence of significant modernist developments and personalities in the United States in the decades between the world wars. Here, an American designer of the first rank in the midst of his finest decade of work was commissioned by individuals of considerable significance in the eyes of the American press to redesign a portion of their apartment with pieces fabricated by the finest cabinetmaker in New York.
In 1925, following a courtship covered closely by the national press, a young lawyer, David M. Milton (1900-1976), married the wealthiest girl in the world, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1903-1976), granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., that titan of American finance who shaped the corporate structure of Standard Oil and became the world’s wealthiest individual.
In 1929, David Milton began construction of a cooperative apartment building where his growing family would occupy the penthouse comprising 18 rooms and 8 baths in three floors, and surrounded by a series of terraces overlooking the East River. Milton commissioned the prominent architectural firm of Sloane & Robertson to design a discreet brick building for the site he had leased from Beekman Hoppin, a descendant of the prominent Beekman family which still held large tracts of land in midtown Manhattan. Many prominent families would purchase apartments in the building.
Donald Deskey’s (1894-1989) involvement with the Rockefeller family, although brief, was remarkably extensive during the early 1930s. The gallery owner Edith Halpern, a friend and advisor to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller introduced her to Deskey after Mrs. Rockefeller had admired the strikingly modern windows Deskey had designed for Saks Fifth Avenue in 1927 and 1928. By the late 1920s, he was already a member of AUDAC and the American Designers Gallery and his work for manufacturers and retailers had earned him considerable acclaim within the emerging group of American industrial designers.
In 1929, Deskey was asked to design some interiors for the Rockefeller’s monumental townhouse that had been built at 10 West 54th Street around the time of the First World War. Deskey designed a remarkable group of rooms on the seventh floor to display Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s growing collection of modernist paintings and decorative arts. Executed in the more subdued idiom of French avant-garde designers such as René Herbst and Louis Sognot, these private galleries received considerable attention when they were completed, although they were not appreciated to their fullest by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Deskey’s success with this project would lead to the most important commission he would receive to date, the Radio City Music Hall interiorsincluding the main auditorium, the grand foyer and 31 additional lounges and auxiliary rooms. When completed in 1932, this commission was considered a triumph of modernism for the general public.
It was most likely at that time David and Abby Milton commissioned Deskey to redecorate a portion of their triplex at Beekman Place. A significant component of this commission was the dining room group of furnishings, primarily executed in macassar ebony by Schmieg, Hungate & Kotzian, the preeminent cabinetmakers working in New York City in the interwar era. The superlative quality of their workmanship and materials is evident in the tightly controlled parallel lines of the gain which was enhanced by their vivid contrasts of color. This manner of veneers is more akin to the high-quality workmanship seen in the better cabinet-making shops in Paris. These pieces were accompanied by a massive sideboard and table, both of which had illuminated components integrated on their horizontal surfaces.
Literature and References:
"Elegance Achieved in Modern Decoration," Arts & Decoration, February 1934, pp. 18-19
David A. Hanks and Jennifer Toher, Donald Deskey: Decorative Designs and Interiors, New York, 1987, pp. 96-98