Walter von Nessen

Walter von Nessen

The ingenuity of a German immigrant, Walter von Nessen, has had far-reaching effects on contemporary lamp design. It goes back to 1927 when he set up Nessen Studios in New York’s Murray Hill section to design and fabricate architectural lighting. He quickly attracted a following among the leading architects of that time who commissioned him to design lighting and other household objects for their clients, making him one of the first industrial designers and a member of a new movement whose inner circle was to include such well-known names as Walter Dorwin Teague, Donald Deskey, Gilbert Rhode and Russell Wright.

Von Nessen’s prestige, training and work in Germany in the early ’20s, before emigrating to the United States in 1925, at the age of 35, were rooted in intricate manufacturing as well as furniture design techniques – invaluable groundwork for his own unique design concepts.

By 1930, critics, manufacturers and museum heads were beginning to refer to him as an industrial design trailblazer and champion of modern design. Of all von Nessen designs, however, lamps were always in the forefront of new trends. A probable reason for this was expressed in a 1930 edition of Lamp Buyers Journal (the forerunner of Home Lighting and Accessories): “The latest, newest most radical expressions of art in industry seem particularly applicable to lamps because a lamp highlights a room and it may well be extreme…and it strives to be an expression of ourselves, our times and our environment.”

Another pertinent comment was made by a reporter who suggested that lamps are especially interesting because they have no tradition to follow or defy. Unquestionably, it was von Nessen’s concepts that led to the modern tradition in lamp design.

From the outset, his designs were the foremost examples of the modern trend. The progression of von Nessen styles range from the German deco of the early 20’s to the American Deco of the mid 20’s to the functionalism which dominated his work until his death in 1943. By combining functionalism with new materials, he helped establish a new design vocabulary.

He had relatively little competition. With the exception of Walter Kantack, an architect who focused on the design of large-scale bronze lamps for building applications, von Nessen was the only major designer who concentrated on innovative contemporary residential lighting.

Overall, his goal was to produce efficient lighting – lighting that would meet his exacting standards of correct illumination. To do this he developed manufacturing techniques for a variety of non-traditional materials: brass with satin chrome, spun aluminum, bakelite, fiberglass, natural cherrywood and rosewood, to name a few. Throughout, he concentrated on indirect illumination, new materials and finishes, and details such as revolving and adjustable parts.

Examples of his thinking include a 1929 hanging fixture composed of 8 concentric rings – alternately gold and black in color – with an indirect reflector; a 1930 desk lamp with dull chromium base, Formica trim, rubber shaft and tilting metal shade with opal glass reflector; and many torchere variations in polished chrome and brass designed for both direct and indirect illumination. Meticulous drawings by von Nessen arranged in chronological order document his designs.

His most famous design, the versatile 1930’s swing-arm classic, is still being manufactured today by Nessen Lamps Inc., successor to Nessen Studios, using von Nessen’s original fabrication methods which the company believes can not be improved upon. His soldering and brazing techniques, and the special screw machine fittings are the keys to the innovative methods he developed.

Von Nessen’s work also includes a number of notable examples of office and apartment building lighting which were trendsetters in 1929.

In the lobby of the Emanuel Zeigler building on lower Broadway in Manhattan, four shallow rectangular ceiling boxes measuring four feet by two feet were installed around each square column to create a luminous ceiling of diffused light and distract from unattractive beams. Also, four lights in each unit were wired in two circuits and a special form of wire glass was used for the bottom cover of each unit. A dramatic, glass-paneled wall sconce designed by von Nessen was installed as a luminous corner unit, setting the tone of a luxurious Art Deco apartment house lobby on Manhattan’s upper east side. Among the variety of large residential suspension lights was one for the guest room of a country home where several tiers of opaque glass squares were suspended from the ceiling by narrow bars.

In tandem with the production of lighting in his own studio (with the help of only one craftsman), von Nessen also designed an extensive range of award-winning appliances and home product designs for the prestigious Chase Brass & Copper Company, and a diverse assortment of furniture and accessories which were subsequently featured in landmark exhibitions of the time.

At one of them – an exhibition of tubular metal furniture at the Metropolitan and Newark Museums in 1929 – von Nessen’s chair was displayed alongside one by Mies van der Rohe. The Third International Exhibition of Contemporary Industrial design sponsored by the American federation of Arts featured the designer’s adjustable ball-bearing lamp (1930). He was also represented at the Design & Industry Exhibition in 1932 with wall sconces, glassware, tables and other accessories. More recognition came at the Paris Exposition of 1937 where he was awarded a gold medal for his lighting exhibit.

It was the 1935 Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition of Contemporary American Industrial Art, however, that was regarded as a landmark in the swiftly changing directions of industrial design, and in fact was a formal recognition of the field of new materials and design. Manufacturers, designers and architects – von Nessen, Teague, Rhode, Deskey. Loewy, William Lescaze, Eliel Saarinen, among them – showed their work. Since the criteria of usability and saleability applied to everything in the exhibition, there was more integrity of design and less of the impractical and self-conscious use of materials displayed at a similar exhibit five years before.

Von Nessen’s work in the U.S. spanned little more than a decade, beginning with his early commissions as an industrial designer and culminating in commercially successful functional lamps for the consumer market which were classic examples of his ingenuity and imagination. In today’s Art Deco revival, his early designs have become collector’s items, and the overall impact of his work on the lighting field is still apparent, over seventy years after the opening of his New York studio.

Von Nessen had married the daughter of a Swedish architect who worked with him. Following his death of natural causes, in his early fifties, in 1943, she revived the Nessen Studio after World War II, turning to the design of lamps that were a continuation of her husband’s concepts.

A few years later, Stanley Wolf joined the studio, buying the business two years later, in 1954, determined to continue the tradition of landmark design concepts. One of the first lamps he designed for Nessen, in 1952, is a minimal design with a with a handsome brass column. The lamp, still in the line, was featured in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House which was erected by the Guggenheim Museum on its Fifth Avenue property in 1953, before construction of the museum’s current building.

In early 1960, Nessen introduced a collection of table lamps designed by Elizabeth Kauffer, featuring bases of the finest Italian marbles – probably the first use of this material for contemporary lamps. Kauffer, originally associated with Gilbert Rhode, later became color coordinator for the Herman Miller Furniture Company.

In the late 1960s, a leisure lighting series was designed by George Nelson & Company, a leading post-war industrial design firm also associated with Herman Miller. Most distinctive of the group is a hanging beehive with a hexagonal pyramid hood; the luminous elements are translucent white acrylic cylinders in a honeycomb pattern. Principally designed for outdoors, the lamp later involved into an indoor version.

During the post-war era, uses for lighting expanded from indoors to outdoors, and back again to multi-use interiors. For the office-at-home and other double duty rooms, the desk lamp became a necessary item. To meet the need, in the early 1970s, Nessen came out with an elegant table lamp with gleaming brass column and opal plastic dome.