Machine Age Design

von nessen lamp

This lamp is one of the best examples of Machine Age design and was designed by Walter von Nessen. It could sell for as much as $10,000 at today’s auctions.

One of the offshoots of early 20th Century Interior design is the “Machine Age” style, a term first used Circa 1927 in the New York Times and later popularized in 1960 by Peter Reyner Banham (1922 – 1988) in his book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. The book is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of Decorative Arts, Architecture and Industrial Design themes between 1900 and 1930. 

The Machine Age style was an offshoot of Art Deco, but stripped to the “form follows function” basics, less art and more function. Some pieces are industrial looking to the extreme and in many cases would fit right into a mad scientist’s lair or would also be perfectly at home on a “Flash Gordon” movie set of the period. While the early Art Deco pieces tended to be limited production items or one of kind items only affordable to the well to do, the modern factories of this “Machine Age” made mass production possible of decorative arts and even everyday household items in the new style.

Machine Age Lamps, Maker Unknown

The lamps of the late 1920’s in particular tend to be the more extreme examples of the style, some resembling lightning powered electrical accumulators or radio antenna, like this pair of tall table lamps shown below. This pair, made circa 1930 of spun aluminum is typical of the type, mass produced for the growing middle class market. Even though they are unmarked and the manufacturer is unknown, their unusual design and vintage have comparable pairs often selling for over $800.00 at auction.

lamp pair

These lamps were produced in the 1930s and marketed towards the middle class. Lamps like these usually sell for over $800 at auctions.

Marcel Breuer 1925 Paris Exposition Lamp

Values for Machine Age lamps that are well marked by noted designers of the period can be considerably higher.  This one below was designed by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) for the the 1925 Paris Exposition; even in less than perfect condition it recently sold at auction for over $1400.00.

breuer lamp

Despite not being in perfect condition, this Marcel Breuer designer lamp recently sold for more than $1400.

Breuer was born in Hungary, moved from his hometown at the age of 18  to become one of the youngest students at the famous Bauhaus School, founded by Walter Gropius just after World War One in Weimar Germany. 

The year 1925 was a break out year for Breur, along with lamps his avant-guard line of tubular steel furniture was also a hit.  Some say his furniture designs were inspired by the Dutch De Stijl movement, but the designer himself said it was a set of bicycle handlebars that originally gave him the idea for the most iconic of his designs, the tubular steel “B3 Wassily” chair. Looking at this chair, one can clearly see how the bicycle story might have a great deal of merit. 

breuer steel chair

Breuer gained inspiration for his “Wassily” chair from a pair of bicycle handlebars. This chair is said to be the most iconic of Breuer’s designs.

Walter von Nessen 1930 Machine Age Lamp

Probably at the top of the value pile for Machine Age lamps would have to be examples like the one shown at the top of the page, designed Circa 1930 for Pattyn Products, a model number 310 by Walter von Nessen (1889-1943). In the current market it would not be unusual to see this model listed with pre-sale estimates at auction in the $7,000- $10,000 range. 

Von Nessen was a lighting and furniture designer, born in Germany and emigrated to the USA in 1925. By 1927, he had already opened a studio in New York to design and fabricate architectural lighting. His work did not go unnoticed by the architectural community and he soon received commissions from some of the foremost designers of the period such as, Donald Deskey, Russel Wright, Walter Dorwin Teague and  Gilbert Rohde.  He’s primarily noted for his lighting designs, but also designed furniture and accessories for the Chase Brass & Copper Company. In the 1930’s he produced his most well known design, the “Swing Arm Lamp,” which is still in production and has been widely copied. A showcase of his work was shown at the 1934 Metropolitan Museum’s Exhibition of Contemporary American Industrial Art.  After his death in 1943, the business was taken over by his wife, who reopened it after the end of World War Two in 1945,  joined by Stanley Wolf, a noted designer in his own right. Wolf bought the business in 1954, making pieces of his own designs as well as continuing to produce Von Nessen’s.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website

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