With thanks to DEBBIE HUMPHREYS:
A Luxe Designer, Restored to Glory
By EVE M. KAHN, NY Times, 10/29/10
Joseph Urban, the Vienna-born architect and interior and set designer, was so renowned in the 1930s that when he was dying of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, he checked in as Mr. John Smith to keep away gossipers and stalkers.
“Today, nobody remembers him,” said Jennifer B. Lee, the performing arts curator at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University.
“We’re trying to remedy that,” said John Loring, the former design director at Tiffany & Company, while he and Ms. Lee were giving a recent tour of an Urban retrospective that they have organized at the library.
The exhibition, continuing through Dec. 23, contains 152 pieces that cover Urban’s evolution from designing Art Nouveau homes and nightclubs in 1890s Europe to running neon tubes along ziggurat buildings at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. He prolifically created sets for Ziegfeld Follies shows, New York and Boston operas and William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, conjuring up backdrops ranging from a Newark airport canteen to a Roman archway.
His oversize foreground elements, like columns and crystals, created illusions of depth. “Look at all those arches within arches within arches, prosceniums within prosceniums within prosceniums, and portals jumping out at you,” Mr. Loring said.
Mr. Loring’s new book, “Joseph Urban” (Abrams), describes its subject as a “large, jocular, sybaritic, fun-loving extrovert” who enjoyed caviar and Champagne. In snapshots displayed at the library, Urban poses in a voluminous linen suit with the buff diplomat Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr., and wears a monk’s robe while kneeling beside the cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
In the 1950s Urban’s family gave 27,000 documents and objects to Columbia, which keeps adding to the trove. Mr. Loring has donated early-1900s German books with Urban illustrations. Last year a dealer in upstate New York sold Columbia an Urban set model with Islamic filigree that he had found “just crammed into a dirty old box,” Ms. Lee said.
A handful of rooms and buildings that Urban designed have survived, including a ribbed auditorium at the New School on West 12th Street and the stuccoed Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. Major works were razed, like the Ziegfeld Theater in Midtown Manhattan and a casino in Central Park with black glass ceiling panels.
In February, for a survey of Urban’s three-dimensional work, the Henry M. Flagler Museum in Palm Beach will borrow silver-leafed knobby furniture from Mar-a-Lago, ceiling fragments from the Ziegfeld Theater in medieval courtier patterns and a metal knight on horseback made for a playground in New Jersey.
Columbia will lend a wooden god and goddess with flowing robes and gilded faces, which Urban kept at his office in Yonkers. They now peer over a railing at the library gallery. “She saw these drawings being drawn,” Mr. Loring said, gesturing from the goddess to the fantasies on paper.