One hundred and twenty-one years ago today (November 23rd) in Blue Earth, Minnesota a man was born, who for over half a century was one of the top industrial and interior designers in the world. Donald Deskey studied architecture at UC Berkeley, but never practiced it. After college he studied art in Paris and attended the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes which was a huge influence on his design asethetic. Returning to New York he started a design consulting firm and was first noticed for the windows he designed for the Franklin Simon Department Store on Fifth Avenue in 1926.
The following year Deskey formed a partnership with Phillip Vollmer. The firm of Deskey-Vollmer designed very modernistic furniture and textiles. Below are some examples of their collaborative work.
During this time, the late 1920’s & early 1930’s, Deskey landed some very important interior design commissions. His clients included Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Adam Gimbel. Deskey was an innovator of using metals such as copper and aluminum for wall covers and ceilings, which he first displayed in 1928 at the American Designers Gallery exhibition in New York. He then employed similar decoration schemes in the in the Gimbel apartment.
In 1931 the partnership of Deskey-Vollmer came to an end. That same year Deskey competed and won the largest commission of his career, the interior design for the Radio City Music Hall. This also included designing the private office of Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the theatre impresario who was manager of the two Radio City theaters. Of all the private, interior design work Deskey did during this period, Roxy’s office is the only one that survives to this day.
Deskey made good use of unusual materials in his decorating the Music Hall, such as aluminum foil wall paper and cork in the men’s second mezzanine and men’s first mezzanine lounges, respectively. Below is a gallery of some of the wonderful moderne rooms that he created.
The Radio City Music Hall was very nearly demolished in 1978 and was saved from destruction at the eleventh hour. In 1999 the theatre was restored so audiences can still be thrilled by the magnificent sunburst auditorium and its interiors of what is arguably Donald Deskey’s greatest achievement.
Between 1933 and 1935 Deskey designed for the Widdicomb furniture Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His collaboration with Widdicomb proved to be his most prolific furniture creation of his career and more of these pieces survive to this day and can be purchased at auctions or high-end dealers of Art Deco.
In the 1940’s he started a graphic design firm, Donald Deskey Associates. If you are not familiar with any of his modernistic furniture designs you are certainly aware of his graphic designs, such as the Tide bullseye first used in the late 1940’s or the Crest Toothpaste packaging. This firm also created the aluminum New York City street light, that became the city’s standard in the 1960’s.
My first contact with Donald Deskey’s Art Deco work was when I was a boy. Between the ages of 7 and 14 I was taken to the Radio City Music Hall numerous times and although I was not aware that the furniture that I was sitting on was designed by Donald Deskey, I knew I liked it and thought it special. Before that I was already familiar with the Tide and Crest packaging. As a collector of Art Deco items, I do not have many examples of Deskey’s work, it is usually priced way beyond my means. Probably the most affordable Deskey collectible is the 1939 New York World’s Fair souvenir book. These can usually be found anywhere from $20.00 to $50.00.
My most prized Deskey piece (if it is actually one) is my Widdicomb desk. These desks usually had a metal plate inside one of the draws, my does not. The desk I have might have been refinished or repaired over the years, which would also explain the missing brushed chrome back plates on the handles. If it is not an actual Deskey-Widdicomb desk, it is a great reproduction and it was cheap enough to not pass it up.
As long as Chris and I hit the road looking for Art Deco objects, we will always be looking to find items designed by Donald Deskey and the other great industrial designers of the 1920’s & 1930’s.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)
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