Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios

Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios

by David A. Bossert

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Overview

Kem Weber (1889—1960), a well-known mid-century architect, was part of the distinctive West Coast modernism movement that helped shaped the relaxed California lifestyle. He influenced California style during the mid-twentieth century with buildings architecture, interior designs and furniture, including his famed Air Line chair, which is part of many museum furniture collections. As chief designer for the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank in 1939, Kem Weber also designed the specialized animation furniture that went into the then new studio complex. The Disney animation furniture, which has been lauded in recent years, was designed for specific animation disciplines with input from the artists that would be using it. It was all part of Walt Disney's desire to create an efficient utopian campus for animated film production. This book is a comprehensive overview of the Kem Weber designed Disney animation furniture that takes the reader on a journey from concept sketches and photos to interviews with legendary artists. David A. Bossert celebrates and details the form and function of this unique mid-century furniture and the impact it had on the Disney animation process over the decades.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781732602021
Publisher: The Old Mill Press
Publication date: 05/28/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 136
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

David A. Bossert is an award-winning artist, filmmaker, and author. He worked at The Walt Disney Company for more than 32-years and is now an independent producer, creative director, and writer. Bossert contributed his talents to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Fantasia 2000, Destino and many others. He is a member of the CalArts Board of Trustees and is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) in Pittsburgh. Bossert is an authority on Disney animation history and has written numerous articles, liner notes, and concert program notes related to animation. He co-authored Disney Animated, which was named iPad App of 2013 by Apple and won a prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION

"The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future."

-Theodore Roosevelt

Over the course of a life, each of us becomes connected to stuff — those things that we accumulate. That connection could be because of its intrinsic value or its aesthetic nature or both. We all have items that adorn our homes and offices which hold a significant place in our lives and often we don't know that much about those things. Maybe you have a piece of furniture that belonged to a grandparent that you have fond memories of from your childhood yet you don't really know the actual history of that piece. Where it was made? What kind of wood was used? What was the significance of that design period? I can completely relate because I had worked on a Kem Weber designed animation desk from 1939 for nearly three decades and knew little about it.

In 2016, after more than thirty-two years at Walt Disney Animation Studios, I was packing up my office readying to leave the company. As you can imagine, after such a long tenure, I had a lot of "stuff" that accumulated over the years. There were books, artwork, papers, reference files, notes, documentation, and all kinds of knickknacks, lanyards, statues, and whatnots. Just think for a moment of all the things we are given over decades. In my case, there were caricatures of me by John Musker, director of The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and Moana (2016), funny drawings from any number of projects that I worked on, one-off art prints, signed limited editions by James Coleman, Walt Peregoy and others, animation cels, — and the list goes on. Some of the items were special gifts for the completion of a project or a gift bag from a premiere, crew gifts and department gifts from one film or another. There were trinkets, stuffed characters, music CDs, boxes of note cards, and my scrapbooks and photo albums — it was an endless stream of memories, a partial record of Disney animation history. And so much of it was on and in my Weber animation desk.

Sorting through all of this stuff was tedious and truly difficult to thin down for the simple reason that each item had its own story. These items were, in some cases, historical artifacts that had significant meaning to me and just couldn't be thrown away. There were even some items such as original animation art from any number of Disney animated films that belonged to the company. That material was boxed up and sent to the Animation Research Library (ARL) or other relevant departments that might want to archive them, whether they wanted to or not. Sometimes there are individuals that lack the knowledge or experience to see the value, figurative or intrinsic, of certain items that are part of a definitive historic timeline.

Years ago, when we received our weekly paychecks, the envelopes that they came in also were advertisements of whatever new movie the studio was releasing or new attraction opening at the parks that the Studio wanted to promote that week. Collectors used to pay to buy those empty envelopes, as well as the Studios' internal newsletter for employees. If it was Disney-related in some way, it had some value to fans and collectors — the same is still true today. If I was looking at something and waffling on whether or not it was worth keeping — I kept it. If it was pertinent to any one of the films that I worked on over the decades — I kept it. Into a box it went, and I have no doubt that years from now I'll find some of it and wonder why I kept it in the first place, or I will be elated because I had the forethought to hold on to it. I did my best to sort out what had real historical significance from what didn't as I boxed up all my personal belongings.

As I was standing in a half-packed office strewn with boxes and packing material, the head of operations came by to see how things were going. I had known her for years. She could see there were stacks of books and papers covering most flat surfaces in my office waiting to be placed into the official brown moving boxes that were ubiquitous at the animation facility. Artists are constantly moved around the various buildings. It was obvious that I had a ways to go even though there was a hefty number of boxes already filled and sealed. As we chatted, she asked me a simple question.

"Do you want your animation desk?"

Looking deadpan at her for a moment, I looked at my Weber animation desk still cluttered with stuff and thought to myself; "Oh my God, are you kidding me? You want to give me my original Kem Weber 1939, Disney animation desk that I have been dragging around with me for decades? This animation desk that was designed specifically for Disney under the watchful eye of Walt himself and with input from some of the legendary Nine Old Men? The desk that a former operations manager said was valued at an obscene amount of money? This incredible piece of mid-century furniture design, mine for the taking? My desk, which is a rare example of what was known as the compact or modified animator's desk and is smaller and taller than the regular animator's desk and of which there are very few examples in existence? And it's mine, all mine for the taking?!"

"Okay, sure ... if you don't want it." I said. "But how will I get it home?"

"We'll have the studio movers take it and all your stuff up to your house."

Thinking to myself, "No way! You're giving me this original Kem Weber 1939 Disney animation desk AND you're going to deliver it to my home. I've hit the jackpot!"

"Okay, that's great," I said rather nonchalantly.

In all of a few minutes, I acquired my Kem Weber animation desk complete with the drawing board, the animation disc and attached under lighting. The desk was a fixture in my offices for decades. It included the blocks that were made for me at the Studio mill years ago that allowed the desk to be raised twelve-inches higher so that I could sit or stand throughout the day as I animated. It also had all of the original patina that included a five-inch round nicotine stain on the bottom-side of the second shelf. The previous animator kept his ashtray underneath while smoking as he worked. (Yes, it was common for people to smoke in offices decades ago. Thank goodness it's no longer allowed.) This was the desk that I worked on doing effects animation for The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Hercules (1997), Fantasia/2000 (1999), and so many other films. The desk that I spent so many hours at working overtime to get films done and ate lunch and dinners at over the years.

It is the desk that I continued to use as I was promoted into artistic supervisory and eventually management roles as the years slipped away. Even in those new roles, I still would jump back on the drawing board and do animation or help assist on animation that needed to get done to meet a tough deadline. So, having the desk in my office enabled me to still draw, animate, and design — still be an artist, which I am at my core. For me, it was a necessity so that I could use it to quickly sketch up an idea during a meeting that would instantly convey how we might do something or solve a creative issue. The desk held everything I needed to get my job done. As we transitioned into the digital age, I used it with my various computers mounting the CRT monitors on the top shelf of the Weber designed worktable that was a close companion piece.

The desk, my boxes of stuff, all fifty-two of them, and other items were all taken by the Disney Studio movers up to my house. Once there, the desk was set up in my new office. I've had the habit of setting up my offices nearly identically as I moved around through the animation facilities from picture to picture. So, it was only natural that this final move was not that much different. I liken it to a comfortable old shoe that you don't want to get rid of because it fits well and feels good.

As I unpacked, I added all the statuettes, bobbleheads, pictures, toys and other trinkets to my desk, setting it up just like it has been for years. I had plenty of reference books and other reading material within arm's length. It's like a security blanket — a comfortable surrounding that is inspiring and conducive to creating, which is now all about writing. I took the drawing board and laid it down flat, removed the animation disc and put a thin, quarter-inch piece of birch plywood over the top to cover the hole where the disc used to be. On that new surface I placed my computer. Instead of animation, I now write books, articles, program notes, or whatever at this desk.

I spent the spring and summer of 2017 researching and then writing a book on the making of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) on my vintage Kem Weber desk. Coming to work every morning in my own office and sitting at this desk, with a hot cup of tea, to create like I had been doing for decades. Instead of creating animation art for a new Disney feature film or short, I was now cobbling words together — wordsmithing. Telling stories of some of those animation projects for which I was fortunate enough to be a part of, and writing about some of the history that I've been researching for years for the sheer love of the art form.

Already a published author, I was always on the hunt for a new topic to explore, one that hadn't been written about in any length or ever. Believe it or not, there are still plenty of Disney related topics to write about that have not been covered in any depth already. I know that may sound hard to believe with the hundreds of books on Disney that have been published over the years, but there still are plenty of stories to tell. These are the stories behind the stories, which sometimes are the most interesting and fascinating.

It was on one of those summer mornings, working at my Kem Weber desk, that I leaned back in my chair and put my clasped hands behind my head to rest for a minute. Sitting at my desk, I started looking at this gorgeous piece of handcrafted furniture. The solid birch plywood, the joinery work, the way the drawers were built, the ingenious pencil tray and the stark linear shelves, which held so many memories. There is a rigidness and weight to the furniture that conveys a permanence and sturdiness.

This is often counter to the very kludged-together animation desks that were used at other studios, those sometimes flimsy desks that had a slight wobble to them, which were indicative of the many boutique animation studios that came and went over the years. Those desks lacked the shelf space or accoutrements of the Kem Weber designs. The Weber desks are solid. It is an undertaking to move them, and when in place in an office they are a solid foundation for the creation of animation for what likely would become a Disney classic. There is an unmatched level of quality to the furniture similar to that of the Disney house style. These desks were as important a tool for creating that animation and art just like the pencils, paper, brushes, straightedges, pan-sticks, computer stylists/keyboards and other implements of the trade used daily by the Disney artists.

As I sat there looking at my Weber desk, I wondered to myself if anyone had documented this specialized furniture. There must have been a book on this furniture — there had to be. The furniture was designed specifically for animation and therefore, I reasoned, there had to be some documentation on it, perhaps complete with interviews of various animation legends creating magic on these desks. After all, with the number of books and articles on Disney related topics that have been published over the years, the furniture must have been covered at some point. Yet, when I spent several hours researching the topic online I found that nothing in fact had been done to fully document the design, construction and use of the animation furniture at The Walt Disney Studios. There was one book and an exhibition catalogue on Kem Weber but these focused mostly on his buildings, the structures for which he is known. There were some notations on the furniture he had designed, including his famed Air Line Chair, which is now part of many museums' furniture collections.

It was a clear oversight, an unintended faux pas that needed to be corrected before it was too late. What was also evident was this subject, the animation furniture, was such a specialized topic that it was doubtful that any large publishing house was going to publish it as a book. It's a struggle to get books published on well-known topics, so forget about the small specialized subjects and behind-the-scenes stories. The Weber furniture certainly fell into that category, and was just too niche a subject matter to be of any interest to established publishers.

So, what then? Do you just forget about it and let the subject vanish into history? Does it fade away over time until some distant day when a researcher is trying to piece together the facts about this furniture and there is little left to be found? That's unpalatable, since at that point in the future there would likely be no one left in this world who actually worked on the furniture. Then there would only be speculation and supposition on how it was designed, manufactured and used.

Think about it: Disney is not doing any hand-drawn animated feature films now or in the foreseeable future. What is left of the furniture is collecting dust in a warehouse and that inventory is slowly eroding away through sales or being given to employees moving on or retiring. There had been warehouse sales to dump much of the furniture at fire-sale prices, and even some of it was carted off to the local landfill over the years. Can you imagine that? The furniture could very well be an archeological find in some distant century.

As the animation business at Disney changed from hand-drawn to computer generated, the Kem Weber animation desks were no longer being utilized. This is the furniture that was used to make animated classics from Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), and Dumbo (1941) to Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), to One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Jungle Book (1967). Those films and so many others were handcrafted on these well designed and functional desks.

The more recent generation of animation artists that worked on films like The Rescuers (1977), The Foxand the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Hercules (1997), Fantasia/2000 (1999) and others in the latter part of the twentieth century, known as the "Renaissance of Disney Animation," used this furniture as well. Those Disney artists are dissipating — scattering to the wind — an entire generation retiring or leaving as their careers evolved and changed. Those are the last artists who used the Weber animation furniture, who prized it for its design of form and function. It was praised for being standardized for a specific discipline, yet allowed for the individual customization of workflow and use by the artist. For some of the artists, it was a source of pride to have a desk that belonged to a previous Disney legend or even one of Walt's Nine Old Men. The desks had a lineage to them, a traceable history that was documented by many artists who wrote their names on the desks, or others that did it for them as a visual record like hieroglyphics on an ancient tomb or cave wall.

So, I felt that the Kem Weber animation furniture was a niche subject that still deserved to be researched and written about. All the information available should be aggregated into one reference source if possible so that there is a record of its existence, design, use and appreciation. If the established publishers had no interest in the topic, then the only way to do it would be through an independent imprint that was able to handle a niche topic as a monograph, which is a small work of specialized writing on a single subject.

As with every book project that I have worked on, this one could not have been accomplished without the help and support of many individuals. It is an arduous task to dig into a subject that has, for the most part, been neglected for more than seventy years. To no one's fault, it is furniture after all, and at the time it was designed and built for a specific purpose — a means to an end — to make Disney animated films. Like the pencils, brushes, paper, and pens, the furniture is also an instrument for creative expression as part of every Disney artist's toolbox. In fact, the furniture, in a sense, was the toolbox that not only held the tools of the trade but was the workbench on which the art was handcrafted. The animation desks and associated furniture were the workhorses of the Disney Studios plant. Pencils get used up, brushes worn-out, and reams of paper drawn on, yet the one constant was the Weber furniture that gracefully aged through each successive hand-drawn animated film. Yet, no one really knew much about the furniture or gave it a second thought.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Kem Weber"
by .
Copyright © 2018 David A. Bossert.
Excerpted by permission of Madison Beach Productions, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements,
Chapter 1: Introduction,
Chapter 2: Mid-Century Moderne and the Rise of West Coast Modernism,
Chapter 3: A New Studio Complex in Burbank,
Chapter 4: Director's Desk,
Chapter 5: Story Desk,
Chapter 6: The Air Line Chair,
Chapter 7: Layout Desk,
Chapter 8: The Versatile Animation Desk,
Chapter 9: The Assistant's and Inbetweener's Desk,
Chapter 10: The Background/Color Keying Desk,
Chapter 11: Checker's Desk,
Chapter 12: Ancillary Furniture,
Epilogue,
Construction Notes,
Quick Reference Guide to the Disney Animation Furniture,
Gallery,

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