Resident artist and master-designer Paul Fehér (1898-1990) was largely responsible for some of the greatest of our artistic creations, those in Art Deco style created during late 1920s and early 1930s. Born in Budapest, Fehér received rigorous art training at the Industrial Arts Academy there before moving to Paris in 1923.
Soon after, he went to work for Paul Kiss, one of France’s finest metalworkers, perhaps second only to Edgar Brandt. His skills fueled Kiss’ success; however Kiss did not frequently share the recognition. Frustrated, Fehér left Paris to join Martin Rose in Cleveland as resident designer. The synergy between the two masters resulted in the creation of the finest Art Deco metalwork produced in America.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression of 1930’s curtailed the commercial success of the studio. Again, frustrated, he left to return to Hungary only to find little work there. He returned to America, this time locating in Los Angeles, California where he achieved success and worked as an interior designer until his death in 1990.
Master-designer Paul Fehér (1898-1990) was in large part responsible for some of the greatest Rose Iron Works designs, its Art Deco creations of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Born in Budapest, Fehér was the son of a tailor who made uniforms for the Hungarian army. From 1914 to 1919 he attended the Industrial Arts Academy in Budapest, where he was rigorously trained in calligraphy, figure drawing, exterior and interior architecture, wood and metal working, and the design of jewelry, textiles, wallpaper, furniture, and stage scenery, and developed a mastery of historical styles, from ancient Egypt to the present. He graduated with high honors. In 1923 Fehér moved to Paris, where he first found employment as a designer in a furniture atelier. Not long afterwards, at a decorative arts salon in the Grand Palais, he met the Paris-based master metal smith, Paul Kiss, also a Hungarian, who hired him after seeing some of Fehér’s sample designs.
Paul Kiss is generally regarded as the next greatest French master of Art Deco metalwork after Edgar Brandt, Fehér was the figure who actually did Kiss’s design work at the height of his fame and success. Beginning in 1924, Fehér designed for Kiss’s annual decorative arts salons, including the famous 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs and Industriels Modernes, where a Bird of Paradise radiator grille of his design won first prize for metalwork. Fehér also worked on a number of important architectural and decorative commissions, for example collaborating with the architect Edmond Souso on projects for King Farouk of Egypt. Fehér even traveled to Egypt to supervise the installation of metalwork there.
Fehér’s working procedure was to make full-scale drawings which Paul Kiss then reviewed with an eye to the techniques that would be used in manufacturing it. Fehér would then redraw the design in white paint on sheet metal, that unlike paper, could not be damaged by heat, and this would become the ironsmith’s pattern.
Kiss, however, did not like to acknowledge the work of his helpers. In 1929 Fehér overheard a conversation between Kiss and a newspaper reporter in which he asked the reporter not to mention Fehér’s name in his story. In 1926-27, during his studies in Europe, Stephen Rose met Fehér and persuaded Martin to offer Fehér employment should he ever wish to come to the United States. Deeply offended by Kiss’s remarks, Fehér resigned and cabled Martin Rose in Cleveland that he would accept his job offer.
At this time American metal workers, such as Samuel Yellin, worked most often in the historic styles such as Gothic, Renaissance, Early American, and Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. Fehér brought French Art Moderne or Art Deco to America, introducing it about five years after it had become popular in France. There are often striking parallels with the work he designed in Paris for Paul Kiss. His masterwork in this vein is an ornamental screen he designed in 1929, which was first displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s 1930 May Show. The piece features a figurative central motif of the Muse playing a violin and is a technical tour-de-force, with iron, aluminum and brass elements, and a variety of unusual forging and chasing techniques. It is now generally regarded as the finest piece of Art Deco metalwork of the 1930s era created in America, and is prominently featured in many books on decorative arts as well as in general surveys of American art.
Fehér drew with astonishing facility, and could work effortlessly in a variety of different historic styles. The archives of Rose Iron Works contain hundreds of his presentation drawings, including many marvelous presentation designs for lamps, tables, grilles and even storefronts, many of which were never executed. In the case of the more ambitious projects, such as the Rose shop sign, or the decorative screen, it’s possible to look at variant designs that Fehér and Martin considered before settling on a final solution. Fehér also created working drawings and models which served as templates for the craftsmen in the shop. Once Fehér had developed a general concept, a major challenge was to decide how every element should be created in metal. This was decided jointly, with considerable give and take, between Paul Fehér and Martin Rose.
Unfortunately, right around the time of the creation of their masterwork, the decorative screen, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression dried up the market for luxury metalwork. Fehér designed one more masterwork for Rose Iron Works, The History of Metalwork, a repoussé frieze depicting metal workers and processes from primeval times to the 1930s, which Martin Rose commissioned at his own expense and placed on the steel girders over his factory floor to inspire his workers. In 1934, however, dejected by the lack of work and having lost most of his savings when the banks crashed, Fehér resigned from Rose Iron Works and returned to Hungary.
Budapest offered little in the way of creative work, so Fehér returned to America. (For a while he worked for a Long Island contractor, painting scenic murals for the homes of the wealthy. But it was difficult to find steady work. In 1935-36, Fehér headed for Hollywood, where he achieved success as an interior designer. His clients included Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (he worked on their home, Pickfair), and Edward G. Robinson (for whom he designed an art gallery). Fehér developed a forte in the design of theme restaurants, including the design of the first food court in an enclosed mall for the Topanga Plaza shopping center. He remained at his residence on Balboa Island, San Diego and continued designing elegant interiors for homes and restaurants in California through the 1970s. Failing eyesight necessitated his retirement, about 10 years before his death in 1990.
History by Henry Adams with contributions by Henry Travers Newton and Joan Kahr’s article Paul Fehér in the Summer 1998 Metalsmith Magazine.