Kem Weber // The Mid-Century Modern Designer Who Paved the Way for IKEA
Like almost all the modernists in Los Angeles in the 1920s, Kem Weber was a transplant to the city. He was born Karl Emanuel Martin Weber (in his twenties, he began using his initials as his first name) in Berlin in 1889. After serving as an apprentice cabinetmaker in his teens, he studied architecture and interior design with Bruno Paul at the School of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule) in Berlin and later worked in Paul’s architectural office.
In the early summer of 1914, he traveled to San Francisco to supervise the building of the German Pavilion for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, but when the war erupted in Europe in August, he found himself stranded in the United States. Seeing greater opportunity in the New World, Weber stayed in the United States after the war ended, later becoming a U. S. citizen in 1924.
Weber built a career on the West Coast, even changing his name to be less Germanic–Kem, based on his initials (K.E.M.). He worked as an art director for the Barker Brothers store, and later formed his own industrial design studio in Hollywood. He is credited with adding a modern flair to products. A great example is the “Zephyr” electric clock , with its case molded into a sweep shape that suggest the forward flowing motion of time.
Many of his designs can be classified as ‘Streamline Moderne’, which was a popular style in contemporary architecture, as well as in the industrial designs of his contemporaries such as Raymond Loewy.
“Airline” Chair is his most well known design today. It was an early form of furniture that was to be sold to the consumer in parts for final assembly at home (like IKEA). Unfortunately for living rooms everywhere, the design did not catch on and only about 200 were ever produced. California’s Walt Disney Studios office complex purchased many of the limited 1934 production.
Kem Weber is also noted for being the main architect of the Walt Disney Studios complex in Burbank, California.