Picture this: it’s 1929 and you’re 17 years old. Your dad is the personal attorney to one of the richest men in Chicago, and your family has just moved into a 27th-floor penthouse in the city’s tallest residential tower. Your parents decorate most of the home with 18th-century antiques, but your room is going to be different. In fact, it’s going to be modern. Your dad hires one of the most celebrated designers in the United States for the job, and money is no object: he’s willing to spend more than $100,000 in today’s money for your bedroom remodel.

This was the situation of the young Elaine Worsmer, whose custom-built, modern-style bedroom was one of the Austrian American designer Joseph Urban’s most daring projects. With its sumptuous silver ceiling, green silk bed, mirror-like walls, and busy floral carpet, Wormser’s bedroom wasn’t just a far cry from the rest of the apartment’s decor, it was extremely unlike most average Americans’ homes.

But for Urban, who designed the room’s furniture, textiles, architectural features, and lighting, the room wasn’t just avant-garde; it was a true gesamtkunstwerk, and one of his final finished projects before his death in 1933. Joseph Urban: Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom, a new book edited by Amy Miller Dehan and published by Giles ltd, reconstructs Wormser’s unique teen bedroom and resurrects Urban’s far-reaching but now-forgotten influence on modern American design.

Joseph Urban, “Lamps” (1929), Egli & Son, attributed manufacturer, United States, glass and brass, Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of Mrs. Thomas J. Reis

Born in Vienna in 1872, Urban was an ambitious, exuberant artist who never quite fit the mold. He started his career as an illustrator, but soon began designing stage sets and interiors. His big break came when he moved to the US in 1911, where he designed stage sets first for the Boston Opera, and later for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This led to set design work in film, as well as a wide variety of design commissions for auditoriums, hotels, casinos, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and theaters. A tireless worker and an evangelist for the new modern style, Urban also designed functional and decorative goods like cars and lamps. In 1926, he designed Mar-a-Lago, the palatial Palm Beach mansion now owned by Donald Trump. 

As Urban’s designs proliferated in public spaces across the country, American consumers slowly warmed to the sharp, sleek look of modernism. Some benefactors, like the Wormsers, chose to dip their toe into the aesthetic by commissioning a single room in the style. In this and other projects, Urban drew from his experience with theater and cinema to create colorful, dramatic interior spaces. In Wormser’s room, for example, the chartreuse bed sits in front of a wall of curtains on a raised, proscenium-like platform surrounded by polished black walls. Writing about another of Urban’s bold boudoir designs, a critic mused that the room had “a strange and very beautiful effect, though to me almost too astonishing.” 

Sadly, Wormser didn’t spend much time in her bespoke bedroom. She went off to college shortly after it was completed in 1930, and five years later, after her father died in a tragic car accident, Wormser’s mother sold the apartment. However, many elements from the original space were preserved, and the Cincinnati Art Museum will present them in a replica of the room later this year.

Joseph Urban, A Young Lady’s Room (1929) (photo of proposal sketch, private collection)
Bookend (circa 1929), probably United States, ceramic (Cincinnati Art Museum, gift of Mrs. Thomas J. Reis)
Alvina Lenke Studios, Elaine Wormser, (1930), photograph, United States (Chicago) (private collection)
Joseph Urban, Bedroom for Elaine Wormser, Chicago (1930), photo by Alvina Lenke Studios, colorization based on recent research and added by Light Work, Syracuse, New York, 2020
Tea Service (1914–1923), State Porcelain Factory, Mikhail M. Adamovich, decorator, Russia (St. Petersburg), porcelain (courtesy John T. Reis)

Joseph Urban: Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom, edited by Amy Miller Dehan, is published by Giles ltd and is available online.

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.