Paul A. Lobel: Innovator of Mid-Century Design
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The accomplishments of Paul A. Lobel, industrial designer, metalsmith, sculptor and cartoonist/illustrator, may be viewed as the quintessential American success story. Born in Romania, at the turn of the century, he emigrated to the United States while an infant, and, from humble beginnings on Manhattan's Lower East Side, grew up to attain a one-man show in Paris in 1925, win two awards at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1932, be the subject of two exhibitions at the American Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He also founded an innovative jewelry and metals studio/shop in New York's Greenwich Village. Furthermore, his contemporaries regarded him with awe and almost everything he attempted came to fruition.
Lobe's first venture into the industrial arts field was a hanging match holder made from a flattened tobacco (or sardine) tin, which he embellished with a pair of stiff calla lilies. This he created while a member of the P.S. 34 art club, where the group's mentor, Mr. Reich, reveled in training his young students to compete with the arts and crafts group of P.S. 62, "the snobs of Hester Street". Lobel entered the work force as soon as he was old enough to qualify for the necessary papers. And, for varying intervals, he worked in a neckwear factory, as a reconditioner of safety razor blades, as a men's clothing examiner and for a ribbon and silk house. After taking a course in mechanical drafting at the Mechanic's Institute, he got a job with an electrical construction outfit as an apprentice. Within six months he had found employment with the U.S. Rubber Co. as a junior draftsman.
Due to the urgent need for ship's radio operations at the beginning of World War I, Lobel signed up for the course offered by the Marconi Communications Institute (later known as R.C.A.). However, by the time he received his operator's license the war was over. Therefore, he joined the merchant marine, instead, due to their constant need for this skill. After two years at sea in Europe and South America, as the merchant fleet began to dwindle and radio operator's jobs were becoming scarce, Lobel enrolled in a course in commercial art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. And, within a year, he had rented desk space with an advertising agency in the Tribune Building.
Having also studied illustration with cartoonist/painter, Boardman Robinson at the Art Students' League, Lobel did a good deal of sketching in his spare time. He sold a series of drawings to Brooks Atkinson, then editor of the Book Review Section of the New York Times and also did decorative black-and-white sketches for the then nascent New Yorker magazine and Colliers' Weekly, in addition to designing book jackets.
By the end of a year, he had saved enough money to go to Europe, and, in 1925, arrived in Paris, just in time for the groundbreaking "Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes." After viewing the famous "Art Deco" exhibition, he realized that a revolution in three-dimensional design was under way. It was at this juncture that Lobel began his first experiments with metal (save his experience at P.S. 34). One of his earliest pieces was a miniature bull-ring (although he had not yet even witnessed a bullfight). In fact, he was to do several sculptures on that theme, reminiscent of Picasso's bullfights - stylistically influenced by the latter's work done in Antibes in the 1940s.
In the summer of 1926 Lobel exhibited 35 works, including drawings, etchings, paintings, metalwork and sculpture, in a one-man show at the Grande Librairie Universelle in Paris. During the next year, he toured London, Rome, Florence, Rotterdam, Brussels and Berlin, then, broke, returned to America where he again rented desk space and tried to resume his advertising career. But he was haunted by the modern design that he had been exposed to in Paris. So, after borrowing money to open a metalwork studio on Lexington Avenue, he sought out architect Eugene Schoen, an enthusiast of modern design, whom he had formerly been introduced to by Boardman Robinson. Schoen was in the process of opening a gallery devoted to showing the work of designers and craftsmen imbued with the spirit of modernism. The gallery's inaugural exhibition was a one-man show of works in brass by Paul Lobel. As a result, he received several commissions for private estates and yachts. In 1928, he participated in a modern design exhibition sponsored by R.H. Macy & Co. and in the "Exhibition of Decorative Arts" at the National Arts Club, New York City, where he showed decorative sculpture.
Between 1929 and 1931, Lobel, along with Leo J. Uris, found the firm of Lobel-Uris, founded the firm of Lobel-Uris, which produced metal and glass accessories. Among the company's more well known commissions were those for the Barbizon-Plaza, St. Moritz, St. George and Dixie hotels. Lobel-Uris collaborated with architect Lawrence Emmons on the interior metalwork for the Hupmobile showrooms in Hartford, Connecticut. The firm was represented in the first "Contemporary American Industrial Art Exhibition" in 1929, organized by Richard F. Bach for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in "Decorative Metalwork and Cotton Textiles - the Third International Exhibition of Contemporary Industrial Art", sponsored by the American Federation of Arts in 1930-31 and at the Architectural League of New York (also in 1931).
Included in the exhibition were andirons, doorstops, fire and room screens, mirrors and small objects fabricated from cold rolled steel, bronze, chrome, glass, polished nickel or asbestos, alone or in combination. Stylistically, the screens, andirons and doorstops were akin to the designs of Edgar Brandt, while the holloware and small chrome or polished nickel accessories were consistent with the streamlined esthetic of the time, practiced by several modern designers such as Raymond Loewy, Gilbert Rohde, Kem Weber and Walter Dorwin Teague. Lobel, himself, participated in subsequent exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, in 1934, he was represented by glass plates manufactured by Regal Art Glass Co., drinking glasses made by T.G. Hawkes and Co. and a cocktail shaker and tea service produced by International Silver, which recalls similar designs during the same period by Jean Puiforcat, Eliel Saarinen and Harry Bertoia.
At the "Industrial Arts Exposition: in 1934, sponsored by the National Alliance of Art and Industry and held at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Lobel exhibited a "U" lamp (manufactured by Lobel-Uris) along with glass by Regal Art Class Co. and a child's three-piece silver set by International Silver Co. Lobel was responsible for the alterations and complete ground floor showrooms designs for Hattie Carnegie, between 1932 and 1934, and designs in metal for the Alexander Herz Co., as well as toys for R.G. Kreuger and the Vall-Kill Shops.
Ever the innovator, Lobel began experimenting with bending glass in the early 1930s, which led to the development of the Benduro process. The line, designed to follow the new trend towards informality with elegance, was in operation from 1935 to 1943 and offered candlesticks, ashtrays, cocktail mixers, tables, magazine racks, bowls, dishes, boxes, mirrors, wastepaper baskets and vanities - all in glass, glass and metal, or plastics. Benduro produced five distinct kinds of glass, textured either in a "diced" or "ribbed" pattern, in several colors. The Benduro line won the Home Furnishings Silver Medal and the Ceramics and Crystal Works Bronze Medal at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1937.
Lobel continued making objects in silver and showed in "Contemporary Industrial and Handwrought Silver" at the Brooklyn Museum in 1937 and in "Silver: An Exhibition of Contemporary American Design by Manufacturers, Designers and Craftsmen" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that same year. Benduro glass plates and a figure were included in the "Contemporary Industrial Art Exhibition" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1940. From 1937 to 40 Lobel did experiments with individual transportation units for the New York World's Fair, designs in marble and a series of lamps for America. Designs, Inc. Russel Wright. He even tried his hand at wooden furniture designs, as witnessed by his woven slate furniture for Broadweave Furniture Co., from 1941 to 43. The line included screens, tables, trays, hampers and other household accessories.
Forced by wartime metal shortages to curtail his large-scale pieces forged from steel, nickel, etc., Lobel turned, in 1943, to sterling silver and its possibilities for jewelry and small sculpture. Originally running an industrial design studio on Fifth Avenue, in 1944, he opened a studio/shop at 165 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village "where town and country merge, for here [one] really meets America." Lobel had "decided there was too much trash in costume jewelry and that since women are receptive to simple forms executed of good material, it behooved him to experiment with decorative designs of commonly seen objects - musical instruments ranging from grand pianos to weeping mandolins; animals of all kinds, from stylized horses and fox heads to a semihumorous skunk regarding with amazement his sweeping tail; leaf and flower forms and such conceits as a bracelet bearing a child skipping rope or a kitten with a waving tail."
In his shop, the visitor encountered, along with the jewelry, hammered copper and brass panels on the walls, furniture and accessories made of interlaced natural cedar Venetian blind slats (by Broadweave), leather objects, sculptural ornaments, clocks and handwrought tea sets. Lobel spent time studying the metalwork of medieval armorers at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One can see this influence in some of his jewelry, notably in his falcon bracelet. His jewelry was exhibited in "Modern Handmade Jewelry" at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946, "Jewelry for Under $50" at The Walker Art Center in 1948 and "From the Neck Up" at the American Museum of Natural History in 1951.
Paul Lobel was a kind of unofficial guru to the group of jewelers maintaining shops in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and 50s, which included Sam Kramer, Art Smith (whom, incidentally, Lobel had invited to work for him) and Ed Wiener. He was the first to open such a studio/store, coming during, rather than at the close of, World War II. His work differed from that of his peers in its general simplicity and lack of stones or materials other than silver. This may stem, in part, from the fact that Lobel tended to be mostly influenced by an industrial design idiom, i.e., a stark geometric stylization (seen especially in his flower, animal and nonobjective motifs), relating to the machine aesthetic of the 1930s, rather than, for example, primarily, by the tribal and biomorphic vocabulary that so inspired Art Smith or the blatant surrealism that informed Sam Kramer's output.
Lobel's sculptures, which comprised an exhibition entitled "Shining Birds and Silver Beasts" at the American Museum of Natural History in 1949, mostly depicted animals and recognizable human personalities such as Adam and Eve, Napoleon, a matador or a fencer. His approach was whimsical caricature - almost cartoonlike - recalling his beginnings as a cartoonist in the 1920s. His "sculptures…range from rhythmic abstract designs to humorously literal interpretations of animals…. In several examples, Mr. Lobel shows the various steps he has followed in finding the most suitable expression of an animal's characteristics as adapted to the medium of handwrought silver and small designs… Inherent traits are often suggested by portraying the characteristic motion of an animal, bird or fish, rather than by emphasizing its anatomical structure."
The sculptures also reflected Lobel's awareness of popular trends in 1950s design such as those influenced by Picasso, African and tribal art (especially masks) and biomorphism. They, like the cubist sculpture of Alexander Archipenko, are most successful when viewed from the front. Constructed from simple, flat shapes cut from silver sheet and embellished with calligraphically bent wire, they are essentially two-dimensional, at most, low-relief metal sketches. As lyrical as his shapes and lines in space might be, Lobel does not lead the eye around his sculptural creations, and, in the last analysis, they remain solely charming tabletop ornaments and lack the formal power of the best of his abstract jewelry designs. The sculptures were meant to be humble, modest decorative pieces intended for small apartments and like budgets. Lobel closed his Greenwich Village shop sometime in the 1950s.
In the early 1970s, after designing objects in plastic, some of which were represented in "Plastics U.S.A.," which toured the U.S.S.R. in 1961, Lobel turned his attention to what he called "paperteering," creating paper sculptures from newspaper, cellophane tape and scissors, similar to origami, except that the Japanese craft does not employ scissors. In 1972, the New York Public Library's Donnell branch held an exhibition of Lobel's paperteering, entitled "Mainly Masks." These paper masks showed the influence of African and American Indian masks similar to their counterparts fashioned from silver, brass and copper, which Lobel had formerly done as jewelry.
Paul A. Lobel, who died in 1983, will certainly be remembered for his versatility in so many media, as well as for his silver jewelry and sculpture. He was a true "Renaissance man," one whose "ambition [was] to own a room containing a catalog of every article manufactured in the U.S. and to work in all known materials under a spreading chestnut tree." He may not have come close to his goal but his dauntlessness and ambition most certainly left their imprint on mid-century design.
- Paul A. Lobel memoirs, Archives of American Art.
- Cindy Cetlin, Review: "Paul A. Lobel 1900-1983 Memorial Exhibition," the Hudson River Museum, Metalsmith, Winter, 1985, p. 43.
- New York Visitor, June, 1944 (Archives of American Art).
- Press release, American Museum of Natural History: "Lobel Small Sculptures exhibited at American Museum," February 28, 1949 (Archives of American Art).
- Cetlin, op. cit.
- "These Two Hands, A Greenwich Villager Makes Many Objects From Many Materials," The New York Visitor, June, 1944 (Archives of American Art).
Toni Lesser Wolf is a jewelry historian, lecturer, curator and writer living in New York City.
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