An Art Deco Room With a View Arrives at CAM

Almost 50 years after receiving original bedroom pieces designed by once-famed architect Joseph Urban, the Cincinnati Art Museum finally puts them on display.

Way back in 1973, the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) took possession of what it considered a major gift of 14 pieces of furniture and accessories. It was nearly everything that still existed from an Art Deco bedroom that Joseph Urban, a leading architect of the day, designed for a Chicago teenager at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties.

It had been a long journey from Chicago to CAM, and it’s taken almost another 50 years until the museum could put it on display. But it’s finally happening: Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom by Joseph Urban is now open and continues through October 2.

Elaine Wormser’s Art Deco bedroom in Chicago.

Photograph by Alvina Lanke Studios; colorization based on recent research and added by Light Work, Syracuse, N.Y., 2020

In 1929, Elaine Wormser and her parents moved to a deluxe penthouse apartment on the 27th floor of the new Drake Tower high-rise on Chicago’s prestigious Lakeshore Drive. Her father, Leo Wormser, was a respected lawyer and a leader in the city’s Jewish community. Her mother had grown up as Helen Goldsmith in Avondale and married Leo in 1911 at downtown Cincinnati’s old Sinton Hotel. Elaine, born in 1912, was their only child.

Befitting their daughter’s status, Leo chose something special for her bedroom, commissioning Joseph Urban to turn it into an Art Deco showcase. Urban, from Vienna, Austria, where there was an exciting arts and architecture movement around the start of the 20th century, had arrived in the U.S. in 1911. As an architect, designer, and illustrator, he became especially renowned for his belief in modernism and his exciting use of color and ornamentation. He stayed busy in this country until his death in 1933 at age 61.

After Elaine married Thomas J. Reis, the couple moved to Cincinnati, his home. But she didn’t quite turn her back on her past, taking key elements of her extraordinary Chicago bedroom with her—she left behind built-in objects—and displaying them in her attractive home in East Walnut Hills for decades.

When it came time to downsize, Reis donated what she still had to CAM in hope that her old bedroom would be preserved and remembered. The museum has never displayed any of the donated pieces, though some were loaned to the Taft Museum of Art for a show in 1982. Thomas died in 1988, followed by Elaine in 2007 at age 94.

The upcoming exhibition will recreate the Chicago bedroom as it was, minus a few omissions, and there will be a coffee-table-size catalogue to accompany it. It’s a big deal for CAM, and Decorative Arts and Design Curator Amy Miller Dehan has spent years researching and organizing the show. “We’re bringing the experience of the designed space back to life,” she says.

Anita Ellis, Dehan’s predecessor as decorative arts curator, is ecstatic about it as well. She started campaigning on behalf of showing Elaine’s collection shortly after arriving at the museum herself in 1974. (She joined the decorative arts department in 1978, eventually retiring as deputy director of curatorial affairs in 2014.) “When you see it, I can tell you it’s going to just knock your socks off,” Ellis says of Art Deco Bedroom. “It’s just spectacular. You’re going to be walking into the 1920s and ’30s when you walk into this room.”

While this show represents the first time CAM is displaying a period room of Art Deco style, it’s long had an interest in this early 20th century modernist trend symbolizing progress and glamour. For that matter, so has the city of Cincinnati itself, home to such admired and beloved Art Deco icons as Union Terminal, the Times-Star Building, and Carew Tower and the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza hotel it contains.

CAM’s Art Deco exhibition includes period pieces like this enameled copper dish (circa 1925).

Gift of Mary Reis Sullivan, John Reis, and Richard Reis in memory of their mother, Elaine Wormser Reis

Cincinnati Art Museum Director Cameron Kitchin says period rooms provide important insight into key moments in decorative and architectural history. “Scholars and visitors will benefit from learning how a patron, designer, and personality intermix in a time and place to create art and design anew,” he says. “I hope they’ll find inspiration in what may be created today and forward.”

The exhibition actually will be larger in size than just Elaine’s bedroom items. Dehan says there will be approximately 150 works in total, including at least 30 either loaned or donated to the museum by Reis family members. Besides the bedroom, which visitors will be able to see from a distance, the exhibition also devotes space to Urban’s career, the many steps involved in resurrecting Elaine’s bedroom, and the history of 20th century modernism, with an emphasis on how it appealed to women. There will also be a web-based interactive component.

Urban is mostly unknown to the general public today, something Dehan wants this show to help correct. “I certainly hope it allows people to rediscover him, because he was such an important figure in American modernism,” she says. “His work was so strong, and he worked in such a variety of media.”

Highlights to look forward to include the bed and its lush green cover, with hand-painted flowers on taffeta silk, velvet ribbon, and satin trim; two chairs with blue and gold stripes so deliciously colorful they remind you of ribbon candy; two table lamps with opaque conical glass shades; and the bedroom’s wool wall-to-wall carpet with an abstract geometricized floral pattern. The carpeted stairs climb two steps to reach Elaine’s twin bed.

It’s obvious this design was meant for a sophisticated, refined girl; a porcelain Russian tea service with a colorful floral design, possibly selected for Elaine by Urban, rests on a table. Yet you can see the room’s occupant still holds affection for her ceramic English Staffordshire dogs, displayed on bookshelves flanking the bed. Black glass Vitrolite panels on the wall were ultra-modern symbols of Art Deco style back in 1930.

CAM Associate Conservator Chandra Obie Linn works on the original bedcover skirt from the Wormser bedroom.

Photograph courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum

To reconstruct as much of the original 18½-by-21-foot room as possible and practical, Dehan has had to find comparable replacements for what’s missing or commission recreations. Besides using the 1930 photographs as a source, she was able to do research at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which holds Urban’s archives.

Among the replica pieces you’ll see in the show are the skyscraper bookcases, a bedside night table, two pendant lights, a floor lamp, hassocks, an armchair, a dressing table, an occasional table, window treatments, and wall curtains. Even though the museum has a significant amount of the original wall-to-wall carpet, a Pennsylvania company is weaving a replica because Dehan was concerned the original couldn’t be safely installed while also preserving it.

Some of the original pieces needed conservation, too. Chandra Obie Linn, CAM’s associate conservator of textiles, worked with the bed’s cover and the headboard. “The bedspread was in pretty rough shape, but we really wanted to be able to use original material because we hated to give up anything that could be included that we had,” says Linn. “Part of the challenge of it was just the sheer real estate. I had this large piece of shattered silk textile, and I took apart a lot of the gathered edge in order to get access to the backside of the painted fabrics.”

CAM Associate Conservator Chandra Obie Linn works on the original bedcover skirt from the Wormser bedroom.

Photograph courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum

After applying adhesive-coated crepeline, a fabric used in garment conservation, inside the cover’s flounces to hold together the painted silk, she moved on to stitching. “It’s so fragile that if we handle it wrong then it has new tears,” Linn says. “So she’s a challenge, but it’s going to be beautiful.”

The exhibit’s recreations could cause controversy or confusion, since visitors might assume that what they’re seeing in a museum “period room” like this is both original and in the same exact condition as when new. Dehan plans to address that issue in the show itself.

“I think in nearly every period room in  a museum setting, there’s usually some kind of fictional intervention,” she says. “You’re seeing some objects in that room that would have been like those used originally in the space, but not necessarily the exact objects. We have to be transparent with visitors and make them understand that there is some license taken by a museum when we try to recreate or present these historic interiors. By not having some of these objects, though, you wouldn’t have as strong an experience and as strong an understanding of what the artist was trying to achieve. It would be like seeing a painting without some of its brushstrokes or a vase without its handles.”

Getting Joseph Urban to design a teenager’s bedroom when he had so many high-profile commissions seems incredible now, akin to getting Frank Lloyd Wright to devise a child’s treehouse (along with its built-in furniture!) or Busby Berkeley to choreograph a children’s talent show. Since coming to the U.S. from Austria, he’d had so much success—in such a variety of the arts—that he was a celebrity figure.

As an architect, Urban was responsible for redesigning the interiors of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 128-room Palm Beach mansion Mar-a-Lago, as well as serving as architect for the New York building that housed William Randolph Hearst’s magazine business. He was stage designer for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, scenic director for the Boston Opera, designed the famous Follies revues for the showman Florenz Ziegfeld, and served as set designer for Hearst’s film studio.

Before beginning on Elaine’s bedroom, Urban had created a conservatory for an exhibition of American design at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. How many teenagers, you might wonder, get a museum-quality artist to design their bedroom? (He apparently borrowed from that conservatory in designing Elaine’s outdoor terrace, according to the show’s catalogue.)

Leo Wormser paid a then-eyebrow-raising $6,350 for Urban’s services, plus another $500 for an armchair. The arrival of the Great Depression following the stock market crash in October 1929 didn’t cause Leo to cancel his plans.

“I think the Wormsers, by commissioning Joseph Urban, were making a statement to their peers that this showed a lot of cachet,” says Dehan. “They were able to commission one of the country’s best-known designers for an interior for their home.”

Elaine Wormser’s Art Deco bedroom in Chicago.

Photograph by Alvina Lanke Studios; colorization based on recent research and added by Light Work, Syracuse, N.Y., 2020

But why not do the rest of their spacious penthouse, which was more traditional in style and contained many English antiques? Besides being a gift to their daughter, it may have been a statement to their friends that they were open-minded to change, especially for the next generation. Modern fashion and style trends, Dehan says, often seem to get adopted by the young first, so Elaine’s parents were possibly trying it out on her.

“There’s this idea that women of that period, especially young women, were experiencing life unlike women who came before them,” she says. “They had more freedom, and roles were opening up for them. Elaine was an only child. Perhaps by choosing Urban to design her bedroom in this style, her parents were endorsing this idea for her to be bold with her life and take advantage of these new ways of thinking.”

Well, maybe not too bold. In his original proposal, Urban wanted to have a reproduction of The Dancer by the great (and often erotic) Viennese painter Gustav Klimt placed in the bedroom; the painting depicted a partially nude woman. Leo nixed it, as well as its $1,000 cost.

“He didn’t seem shy about spending money in other areas,” says Dehan. “So my guess is it was the nudity that made him say it was inappropriate, but I don’t know that definitively.”

Elaine lived in this bedroom for just five years before tragedy struck the family. In 1934, she was driving her father to see his mother in Michigan when she swerved to avoid a parked car. Her vehicle overturned, and Leo was thrown from the car and died at age 50. It was front-page news in The Chicago Daily Tribune; even The New York Times covered it.

A marriage and move to Cincinnati provided a new and different life. Thomas Reis was an investment banker whose grandfather had cofounded the Seasongood & Mayer public finance firm here. After living in a North Avondale apartment, Elaine and Thomas moved to their home in East Walnut Hills, where they would raise sons John and Richard and daughter Mary.

Of those interviewed for this story, none recall Elaine ever bringing up the auto accident as a reason for saving her bedroom furnishings. Dehan and Ellis participated in interviews with her before she died, but the crash never came up. “She never specifically explained why she saved all these things,” Dehan says. “I have to believe she understood the importance of this commission even though [she was] very young when it all came together. She knew the value and beauty of what she had, as well as Joseph Urban’s importance, and she wanted to save as much of his creation as she could.”

Elaine’s son Richard Reis, who like his father worked at Seasongood & Mayer, says that “the bedroom wasn’t something we dwelled on at home, other than where all these beautiful things came from.” He wonders how his mother would respond if she knew the Art Deco Bedroom exhibition was happening. “I would think my mother would be oh so proud,” he says. “I wish she were here to have all the memories and explain all her emotions, having her girlfriends up to the bedroom and living the high life that she did. And then having it all end.”

Family members, too, will be proud when the show opens. Elaine’s granddaughter Meghan Sullivan Nelson, whose mother—Elaine’s daughter Mary—died in 2019, feels a special bond with the exhibition. “I think it’s important and meaningful to me,  having lost both my grandmother and mother,” she says. “It’s really a beautiful link in our family.”

As poignant and touching story about Elaine’s bedroom is, the exhibition is very much about restoring Urban’s legacy, too. Coincidentally, there is a Cincinnati Art Museum connection to the man who first sounded the call to pay more attention to Urban’s career—Timothy Rub, the museum’s director from 2000 to 2006.

In 1987 and 1988, while a curator at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, Rub presented an exhibition called Vienna/New York: The Work of Joseph Urban. “Back then he was virtually unknown by contemporary architectural historians,” recalls Rub, now the director emeritus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “I did a show—not a big show—in the downstairs galleries that introduced him and his work to the public. It must have been the first exhibition of his work in New York in maybe 40 or 50 years.”

Rub had become interested in Urban while working on an earlier show at Cooper Hewitt devoted to New York skyscrapers. In his research, he found a reference to Urban’s plan to build a 20-story tower atop the Hearst office building he’d already designed. That led Rub to the Urban archives at Columbia University, and he was impressed. “He worked across the fields of architecture and pictorial arts,” he says. “You shake your head in amazement.”

Rub salutes CAM’s ambition in staging Art Deco Bedroom, given the lack of public familiarity with Urban. “If I take a stroll through my own memories and count the number of times I’ve seen a work by Joseph Urban—a chair, a clock, sideboard, what have you—in museum galleries around this country, I can still count those on one hand,” he says.

There’s another important connection between Urban and Cincinnati, too. In 1928, he designed downtown Hotel Gibson’s elegant Roof Garden, a supper club with dancing that featured the dazzling colors and ornamentation of so much of his work. It also had a futuristic “scientific cooling mechanism” for climate control. When it opened, The Enquirer wrote that “critics who are in a position to know declare [it] the most modern restaurant in America.”

CAM’s Art Deco exhibition will include other work by Joseph Urban, including his design for Cincinnati’s Gibson Hotel.

Illustration courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The Cooper Hewitt Museum has a color illustration by Urban of the space, which it displayed in a 2017 exhibit that later traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art. That illustration will be on display in Art Deco Bedroom, too.

“It was a new type of interior for the period,” says Emily M. Orr, Cooper Hewitt’s associate curator and acting head of product design and decorative arts. “Urban seems to have cornered the market for this new demand for space for eating and drinking and also dancing and entertainment, all at once. For a number of hotels, he created these spaces that would transport all his visitors to a fantasy place. He almost built an interior decoration as if it was a theater set and allowed you to dine on stage.”

When Urban died, he was at the top of his game and had just created a color scheme to unify building exteriors at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. One of his watercolor renderings for it, loaned by Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, will be part of the CAM show.

Urban’s death merited an Enquirer news story, which called him a “daring exponent of modernism.” That reputation was forgotten in the following decades, but Art Deco Bedroom hopes to revive it, along with the thrill of Art Deco design in its heyday.

Pauletta Hansel, writer-in-residence for the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library, marvels that Art Deco remains popular today. Her enduring admiration for Union Terminal, designed in 1929 and opened in 1933, rests on its ability to survive the passenger train era it was meant to serve. “Paradoxically, Union Terminal remains a survivor,” Hansel writes in an essay explaining Art Deco’s continued appeal. “And I love it despite—maybe because—obsolescence was written into its DNA. I love how it survives on beauty.”

You can say the same about Joseph Urban’s bedroom for a teenage socialite.

Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom by Joseph Urban continues through October 2 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. 

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