from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2011 |

The story of the rise of modern American design has long been told in the same way: first came the arts and crafts movement from Britain and art nouveau from the Continent in the 1890s. Then, in the mid-1920s, spurred by the Paris exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Americans embraced the distinctive forms of art moderne. What happened in the decades between has long been a void, when Americans, it was thought, undertook few experiments and made little progress. 

  • Fig. 1. Detail of the cover of a supplement to Modern Art Collector (September 1915) showing a view through several rooms in a house in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, designed by Edward H. (1878–1940) and Gladys G. Aschermann (d. 1948), c. 1915. Courtesy of Renate Reiss.

  • Fig. 2. Living room in the Aschermanns’ apartment and studio, New York, c. 1914, from the supplement to Modern Art Collector,  p. 2. Courtesy of Renate Reiss.

  • Fig. 3. Display of the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule designed by Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956), in the Austrian pavilion at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Saint Louis, 1904. Columbia University, New York, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Joseph Urban Collection.

  • Fig. 4. Music and sitting room in the Aschermann apartment and studio, New York, c. 1914. From Edward Stratton Holloway, The Practical Book of Furnishing the Small House and Apartment (J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1922), Pl. 78.

  • Fig. 5. Chair designed by Edward and Gladys Aschermann, c. 1914. Painted wood; height
    34 ¼, width 18, depth 18 inches. Collection of the Asherman family.

  • Fig. 6. Nursery design by Edward Aschermann, c. 1909, frontispiece to Louise Brigham, Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home (Century, New York, 1909).

  • Fig. 7. Dining room in a house in Forest Hills, designed by the Aschermanns, c. 1915, from the Modern Art Collector supplement, p. 3. Courtesy of Renate Reiss.

  • Fig. 8. Tray designed and painted by the Aschermanns, c. 1914. Painted wood, 7 ½ inches square. Asherman family collection.

  • Fig. 9. Umbrella stand designed by the Aschermanns, c. 1914. Stained wood; height 36, width  26 ¾, depth 10 ¼ inches. Asherman family collection.

  • Fig. 10. Side table designed by the Aschermanns, c. 1914. Painted wood; height 29 ¾, width  18 ¾, depth 17 inches. Asherman family collection.

But there were notable and important exceptions. Paul T. Frankl, Ilonka Karasz, Winold Reiss, and others were already active in New York before World War I. Among the forgotten pioneers in this period were Edward H. Aschermann and his wife, Gladys, who worked as interior de­signers in New York from 1908 to around 1920.1 Together, they shaped a modernism combining the principles of the Wiener Werkstätte and early nineteenth century Biedermeier design with a distinctly American interest in color, individuality, and frugality. Their bold and vibrant interiors and furnishings brought to the United States the unmistakable impress of the Viennese Secessionists. But in remaking the modernist style of the Viennese to suit American sensibilities, the couple also laid the groundwork for the rise of the new design in the 1920s.

Edward H. Aschermann was born in Milwaukee in 1878, the son of German immigrants involved with manufacturing and mining in Wisconsin and Michigan.2 Brought up with a thorough command of the German language, he trained as a painter, reportedly studying for a time at the Académie Julian in Paris.3 A surviving painting, still in family hands, depicting sailboats in Saint-Tropez, offers a hint of the qualities that would characterize his design work. The colors are rich and vibrant, yet the palette is restricted to a few hues, tied together by a rust brown tone employed throughout as an accent.

The key moment in Aschermann’s design education seems to have occurred in 1905, when he undertook an extended tour to Europe. A series of surviving Baedeker guides still in family hands reveals that he traveled to London, Belgium, the Netherlands, Paris, and Berlin. In each place he visited the art museums and made extensive annotations on the artworks in the margins of his guidebooks, taking particular note of the artists’ use of color.

Even more important for his devel­oping ideas was a stop in Vienna, evidently reflecting a growing absorption with the work of Josef Hoffmann. It is unclear how this interest had been awakened, but perhaps his German background led him to Hoffmann or perhaps he had seen the sensational room Hoffmann had designed for the Vienna

Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis (see Fig. 3).

The nature and extent of Aschermann’s training with Hoffmann remain a mystery, though it seems to have taken place by 1907. Aschermann took from Hoffmann not only a penchant for clean lines and spare geometry, but also a belief in the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” While in Vienna, Aschermann also apparently became interested in Biedermeier design. The Biedermeier revival, which had begun in Vienna just after the turn of the century, provided him with ideas about how to fashion integrated works of design.

While studying with Hoffmann, Aschermann met Louise Brigham, another young American student, with whom he would enjoy a lifelong friendship and a fruitful working relationship. After returning from Vienna, he illustrated her book Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home, published in 1909. The work gave instructions on how to build simple, modern furniture out of wooden packing crates, an idea Brigham developed during several summers spent on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen. “As I worked in that far-off marvelous land of continuous day, surrounded by mountains and glaciers,” she wrote, “I felt anew the truth, so familiar to all, that work to be of real value must be honest, useful, and beautiful, and Ruskin and Morris spoke as clearly in the arctic regions as in the settlements or studio in New York.”4

Aschermann’s contribution to Box Furniture went far beyond that of a mere illustrator. The few photographs in the book show Brigham’s furniture conventionally arranged in ordinary rooms. But Aschermann’s illustrations portray interiors that are very different—and strikingly modern (see Fig. 6). In accord with Hoffmann’s ideas, he broke the walls into panels bordered with simple painted geometrical motifs, which are carried over to the furniture and curtains. The square—and a multitude of variations on it—governs the geometry of the furniture and the configuration of the whole. Drawing from Biedermeier interiors, Aschermann used a smattering of pictures, plants, and knickknacks to soften the severity of the modern lines. Notably, he provided a detailed color guide with each illustration, specifying how the rooms were to be painted and decorated, down to the color of the flowers and plants. In one space he mixes black and white, a favorite color scheme of Hoffmann’s, with accents of “rich crimson (not deep red).”5 This interest in color, and insistence on its precise application, would become a distinguishing characteristic of his work.

At the time he was creating the illustrations, Aschermann was also at work establishing his own design studio and shop, which he opened with businessman Samuel J. MacMahan on Fifth Avenue in New York. In 1908 and 1909 he advertised in both Architectural Record and The Craftsman (see Fig. 13). His simple idea, “Harmony in design and color,” presents his manifesto to fashion interiors that were integrated works of art. From the start, he wrote to

Hoffmann, he hoped to carry over the Viennese aesthetic to the United States: “I would so much like to have some of your students here. It would be so much easier…to work with someone…who has the same direction.”6 He also began to import fabrics from the Wiener Werkstätte to use in his own work and to sell. Aschermann, though, was committed to forging a style suited to American tastes and ideals, and from the outset he sought ways to adapt the Viennese idiom to American reality.

Around this time he met a new collaborator, Gladys Goodwin, a young artist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who had come to New York to study. In the fall of 1910 or 1911, they married and became partners in both life and design.7 All the work they subsequently produced was credited to “E.H. and G.G. Aschermann,” or simply “The Aschermann Studio,” unusual at a time when women designers were rarely recognized.

Though they worked together closely, Edward and Gladys had divergent ideas and styles. Two bookplates designed for use in their personal library offer a hint of these differences. Edward’s is governed by the geometry of the line and the square, with the block lettering favored by the Wiener Werkstätte (Fig. 12); Gladys’s relies on stylized natural forms more typical of earlier Jugendstil design (Fig. 11).

The Aschermanns were most prolific between 1911 and 1915. Their first major work was their own apartment at 120 East Thirty-first Street, which they opened to visitors as a showcase of their abilities and aesthetic. In an article they characterized it as “the first really ‘modern’ home…furnished and decorated here in New York….[It] shows that color and simplicity are not only interesting but livable and highly suitable to our modern American indoors.”8 Reviewing the apartment, the New York Times observed: “Mr. Ascherman, a pupil of Prof. Hoffman[n]…understands how to use black and white to tie together a design that without one or the other would be loose and disconnected.”9 The unnamed reporter also noted the Aschermanns’ attempt to forge a harmonious environment: “At the present moment Vienna understands that the furnishings of a room belong with the architecture, and that nothing in it from a footstool to a piece of table glass is unimportant to the general effect.”

Then in 1914 the Times noted that the Aschermanns had revised their design and exhibited their apartment again, apparently in response to charges that their first interiors had been too radical and modern (see Fig. 2). Their intention, the reporter observed, was “to show that the ‘Cubist’ decorations exhibited by them last year can be modified and arranged to suit conservative American tastes. The entire apartment is furnished and decorated in the modern European style, with intensely strong colors used on a background of black and white in most cases.”10
Of greatest interest to the reporter was the pink and blue nursery, “the triumphant crowning touch, and the two decorators declare that if the baby had not been such a good baby they never could have done it. It seems that he sat on the floor and cooed Wiener Werkstaette baby talk while his parents designed and cut out an entire blue circus.”

Unfortunately, no color photographs of the apartment survive. But a 1915 article in the Craftsman describes it as “a place of exceptional originality and charm, in which every nook and corner, every bit of woodwork, furniture and fabric…is rich in color and interesting in design.”11 The truth of this statement is evident when one examines some of the surviving objects. A chair from the music and sitting room gives a hint of the overall effect (Fig. 5). Its still brilliant yellow echoed the color of the piano in the same room, and the blue stripes and stylized baskets of flowers were repeated on the walls. The caption to a photograph of the room (Fig. 4) provides a detailed description of the color scheme: “Walls, ceiling and furniture, bright yellow; carpet, red-violet with coloured border; Furniture-covering, blue-green silk velvet; Draperies, yellow with silk appliqué; Decorations on ceiling, walls, and furniture, blue-green with coloured flowers.”12The Aschermanns wrote passionately about the value they perceived in color. They gently denounced the American fascination with antiques, which they believed was responsible for creating a drab and muted color palette, hailing instead the advent of color in design as “a glorious sunset, which has unexpectedly come after a dull grey day.”13 They were careful to stress that they were advocating a special way of using color: “Not colors splashed heedlessly here and there or thrown haphazard in every nook and cranny, but colors harmoniously chosen, pleasantly balanced, and appropriately placed.”14

The Aschermanns’ interest in color was not confined to its design potential. They were interested, too, in its psychological effects: “Instinctively, we love bright colors; they affect us one and all. To be surrounded by our favorite colors, brightly and harmoniously used, has a stimulating and enlivening effect on us, young and old.”15 They added, “our immediate color surroundings may materially keep us gay or sad, merry or dull. Optimism is color, pessimism, lack of color.”16

But the rich use of color was only one distinctive feature of the Aschermanns’ approach. They also trumpeted their belief that modernism should be made accessible to all, noting that paint or fabric could dramatically alter the appearance of a space without great expense: “The beauty of the whole modern movement is that it offers an unlimited chance for individual expression. It needs no more money but a great deal more time and thought, for bright colors demand proper care and treatment!”17 Rather than focusing on a well-to-do clientele, they sought to forge a popular modernism—a concept they believed was distinctly American: “Here, in America, the effect of what is sometimes called Modernism is seen now, more or less, in every form of Art—simplicity, appropriateness, profuse and fearless yet thoughtful use of color—it must appeal to our beauty-loving and yet practical selves.”18

Another prominent feature of the Aschermanns’ work was their use of simple, factory-made furniture. The 1915 Craftsman article observed that perhaps their “most ingenious device” was “to take plain, unfinished, inexpensive factory furniture and complete it themselves, transforming it, with enamel, stain, painted decorations, or upholstered and inlaid fabrics of rich coloring and design, into furniture of real individuality and beauty.”19 This approach differed fundamentally from that of their contemporaries in the arts and crafts movement or the modernists in Vienna, who believed that every object in a room should be designed specifically to fit into an overall aesthetic.

The full impact of the Aschermanns’ ideas was evident in a house in Forest Hills, Queens, completed around 1915. The client was most likely Walter Hartwig, a Broadway director and producer who became a close family friend. One surviving image, which shows a view through several rooms in the house, conveys the Aschermanns’ emphasis on the need for harmony and thoughtfulness in the use of color (Fig. 1). Particularly striking is the yellow and blue dining room that can be glimpsed beyond (Fig. 7). Here bright blue and yellow mingled with black and white. The walls were divided into panels framed by painted borders of blue, which was repeated in the rug, curtains, and chair seats. Accents of yellow appeared in the lampshades and in the center of the wall panels, where sconces alternated with stylized flower medallions, another device they borrowed from Biedermeier design.

Most of the furnishings in the Forest Hills house appear to have been mass-produced pieces that the Aschermanns adapted. But they also designed and made their own furniture. Some pieces, like the tall étagère in Figure 14, drew from the arts and crafts aesthetic, combining simple lines and through tenons. For others they relied directly on Viennese models. The small round side table in Figure 10 employs basic geometric forms—circles, cylinders, and spheres—à la Hoffmann. The white lacquered finish also repeated standard Viennese modernist ideas, covering the grain in a way that highlighted the abstract nature of the form. The most original of their designs was an umbrella stand, also likely from the early war years, that features elemental lines and rudimentary construction, a harbinger of later constructivism and De Stijl (Fig. 9).

Much of the Aschermanns’ aesthetic issued from such notions of plainness. Yet just as often they took simple shapes and elaborated them with ornament. The small painted tray in Figure 8, for instance, is decorated with stylized butterflies and edge decoration evocative of folk motifs, but it is a fresh and original interpretation. It takes from the Jugendstil an absorption with di­­­rect, graphic representation, but the Aschermanns’ insistence on painting freehand—rather than using stencils—suggested a more carefree modernism, one they believed was more fitting to the American context.

The Aschermanns completed only a handful of commissions between 1915 and 1920. Still, the impact of their work, at least for a time, was substantial. Articles in Craftsman, Arts and Decoration, and the Modern Art Collector showcased their designs as examples of modern interiors, and their work was cited in books on interior design as exemplary of the “modern” style of decoration. In The New Interior, one of the first books to document the nascent American modern movement, Hazel Adler offered special thanks to the Aschermann Studio and employed numerous images and descriptions of their work, particularly to illustrate design ideas for small houses and apartments.20 Other instructional books also used the Aschermanns’ work as examples of modern design, among them The Practical Book of Interior Decoration (1919) and The Practical Book of Furnishing the Small House and Apartment (1922).

After 1920 the Aschermanns disappeared from the design scene. Undoubtedly, anti-German sentiment during and after World War I played a part. More important, though, was an increasingly rich family life. By 1920 Ted, the child whose baby talk had so impressed the New York Times reporter in 1914, had been joined by brothers David and Aldon; a fourth son, Adrian, was born later. Edward had inherited an interest in a mining company in Michigan that provided sufficient income to live comfortably. In 1919 he purchased a house in the artists’ community of Ogunquit, Maine. The family moved many of the pieces designed for their Manhattan apartment to the new house, and for the rest of Edward’s life they split their time between Ogunquit and New York.

Although Edward and Gladys had stopped producing design work, they remained involved with art. They wrote and illustrated books as gifts for their children, helped them paint murals on their walls, and assisted them in staging theatrical productions, complete with sets.21 Their presence prompted Hartwig to buy the house next door in Ogunquit in 1933. He and his wife, Maude, founded the Ogunquit Playhouse summer theater and commissioned the Aschermanns to design the interior, a commission they shared with their fourteen-year-old son David, who had shown aptitude as an artist. The result was an orange and deep blue interior, but sadly, the installation is now destroyed, and no photographs of it are known to exist. It was likely the last interior Edward worked on. He died of cancer in 1940.22 Gladys died in 1948.23 The Ogunquit house continued to be used by their sons, who passed it on to their children.

Though they had attracted considerable attention with their work, the Aschermanns’ impact on the rise of modern American design was fleeting. They were perhaps too far ahead of their time: their work had all but been eclipsed before the modern movement had regained momentum in the United States in the mid-1920s. But their singular combination of design ideas—their stress on inexpensive, individualized, and integrated interiors—would become crucial components of American design in later years. Their efforts to forge a bold new aesthetic adds an important chapter to the early story of modern American design—one as vibrant as their favorite hues. The authors would like to thank the Asherman family for their generous help, in particular Mary Leigh Smart, and Ted, Pam, Ellie, Joanne, and Brett Asherman. We are also grateful to Renate Reiss of the Reiss Partnership for her help in assembling some of the images.

1 Edward Aschermann gradually Americanized his last name. It appears as Asherman in his obituary in the New York Times (March 3, 1940, p. 47), and his descendants currently use that form. 

2 Interview with Ted, Ellie, and Pam Asherman, August 8, 2009. 

3 Interview with Mary Leigh Smart, August 8, 2009; and Bert Denker, The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del., 1996), p. 208. 

4 Louise Brigham, Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home (Century, New York, 1909), p. 2. 

5  Ibid., p. 24. 

6 Quoted in Eduard F. Sekler, Josef Hoffmann: The Architectural Work (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J., 1985), p. 514. 

7 Interview with Ted, Ellie, and Pam Asherman. 

8 E. H. and G. G. Ascherman, “The Modernist School of Interior Decoration,” Arts and Decoration, vol. 4, no. 8 (June 1914), p. 300. 

9 “News and Notes of the Art World,” New York Times, April 27, 1913, p. 14. 

10 “Art Notes: Mr. and Mrs. Aschermann’s Studio Decorations,” ibid., April 15, 1914, p. 8. 

11 “More Color in the Home: Painted Furniture Inspired by Peasant Art,” The Craftsman, vol. 28, no. 3 (June 1915), pp. 253–254. 

12 Edward Stratton Holloway, The Practical Book of Furnishing the Small House and Apartment (J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1922), p. 188. 

13 E. H. and G. G. Aschermann, “Modernist School of Interior Decoration,” p. 300. 

14 Ibid., p. 301.  

15 Ibid., p. 300. 

16 Ibid. 

17 Ibid., p. 304. 

18 E. H. and G. G. Aschermann, “Modern Interior Decoration,” Modern Art Collector (M.A.C.), vol. 1, no. 4, (December 1915), n.p. 

19 “More Color in the Home: Painted Furniture Inspired by Peasant Art,”p. 254. 

20 Hazel Adler, The New Interior, Modern Decorations for the Modern Home (Century, New York, 1916), preface. 

21 Smart interview. 

22 See n. 1. 

23 “Gladys G. Asherman,” New York Times, October 27, 1948, p. 27.

AURORA McCLAIN recently received a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

CHRISTOPHER LONG is University Distinguished Teaching Professor for architectural and design history at the University of Texas at Austin.