Lot 50
  • 50

Donald Deskey

20,000 - 30,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Donald Deskey
  • An Important and Rare Ashtray
  • chromium-plated metal


Alan Moss, New York, 1984


Walter Rendell Storey, "American Designer's Show Their Work," The New York Times, November 25, 1928, p. SM9
The American Architect, December 5, 1928, p. 754 (for a period photograph of the corner of Deskey's Man's [Smoking] Room showing an ashtray of this model in-situ)
Good Furniture & Decoration, January 1930, p. 29
David A. Hanks and Jennifer Toher, Donald Deskey:  Decorative Designs and Interiors, New York, 1987, pp. 22, 23, 24, 40 and 170 (for period images showing this ashtray model in-situ in various exhibitions and marketing materials)
Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, and Ghislaine Wood, eds., Art Deco 1910-1939, London, 2003, p. 339
J. Stewart Johnson, American Modern 1925-1940:  Design for a New Age, New York, 2000, p. 19

Catalogue Note

Like many of his American contemporaries, Donald Deskey initially looked to the established modern art movements in Europe for creative inspiration.  After studying fine arts in California, Deskey traveled to Paris in 1923 to study painting and was greatly influenced by the stark modernity of the De Stijl movement and experimented with abstraction.  After a brief return to the United States, Deskey traveled to Paris in 1925 and attended the Éxposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes and took a keen interest in the groundbreaking decorative arts and interiors presented there.   It is believed that during this sojourn, which lasted until 1926, Deskey visited the Bauhaus at Dessau and was greatly influenced by the school's approach to industrial materials with the emphasis on mass production over handicraft. 

After returning to New York, where he began his career as a designer, Deskey was one of several artists who organized an interior design exhibition at the influential but short-lived American Designers' Gallery.  Presented in the fall of 1928, the purpose of this exhibition was to champion modern American decorative arts.  Deskey designed a "Man's Room" which served the multiple functions of library, bar, lounge and game room.  The installation was celebrated for its bold use and recontextualization of industrial materials, namely aluminum, black vitrolite, chrome, nickel, steel, linoleum and insulating cork.  Deskey's ability to transcend the industrial connotations of these materials is best captured in the glowing period review he received from The New York Times:
"...obviously but satisfactorily these decorative motifs of the room are taken from the business background of the man of today.  And yet by the alchemy of the artist the room does not convey either the factory or the office.  It seems successfully to reflect through this use of metal and glass and cork something of the stirring and picturesque side of industry."  Deskey achieved his aim to push industrial materials into new domestic realms while attaining an unexpected level of sophistication and comfort.

This ashtray model was presented on the desk adjacent to the bar, together with the artist's iconic table lamp.  The lamp and ashtray models have much in common by way of their stark geometry, harmony of proportions, and overall sense of lightness.  The forms are clearly influenced by Deskey's experiments in cubism and abstraction, thus cleverly playing off of the geometrically skewed landscape he painted and hung above the desk.  The ashtray itself distills Deskey's design vision from this early period.  It is rigorously modern, harmonic, and can be described as a work of functional cubism.

While we do not know exactly how many of these ashtrays were created, few have survived to the present day.  During this period, Deskey, along with Phillip Vollmer, exclusively produced furniture and accessories for a handful of special commissions, most notably for Adam Gimbel, Helena Rubenstein and John D. Rockefeller.  In inspecting the ashtray's form, complexity and construction, one would suspect that similar to some designs executed by the Bauhaus, this pure sharp geometry may not have lent itself to wide-scale mass production.  One other example is known in the private collection of John P. Axelrod, Boston, and is a promised gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.