Frederick John Kiesler  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Frederick John Kiesler (September 22, 1890December 27, 1965) was a Romanian-American theater designer, artist, theoretician and architect best known for arranging the world premiere in Vienna of the 16-minute film Ballet mécanique .


From 1908–09, Kiesler studied at the Technische Hochschule and from 1910–12, attended painting and printmaking classes at the Akademie der bildenden Künste, both in Vienna. Though he did not finish the architecture curriculum at the Technische Hochschule, a circumstance which was to become a distinct disadvantage, Kiesler was productive as a theater and art-exhibition designer in the 1920s in Vienna and Berlin. From 1920, he briefly collaborated with Adolf Loos and became a member of the De Stijl group in 1923. Kiesler was friendly with many of the major figures of the European avant-garde, which may have influenced his heretical, if bizarre, approach to artistic theories and practices.

Kiesler arranged the world premiere in Vienna on September 24 1924 of the 16-minute film Ballet mécanique directed by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger, with Man Ray. In November 1975, Lillian Kiesler, Frederick's second wife, found Léger's original spliced 35mm, 16-minute version of the film in the closet of their weekend house in Germany. This version, restored by Anthology Film Archives, has since been copied and included in the documentary film compilation Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941 released as a 7-disc DVD set by Image Entertainment in October 2005. The music for the film was originally composed by George Antheil, who used it to create a separate concert piece, also named Ballet mécanique, which premiered in Paris in 1926.

Numerous critics claim that he was far in advance of his contemporaries; detractors have labeled him an oddball. Nevertheless, scholars have only recently seriously studied Kiesler, who like the eclectic Carlo Mollino and another member of De Stijl, László Moholy-Nagy, has been difficult to categorize. Also Kiesler did not help his cause by falsifying his birth year and claiming that Vienna was his birthplace. And, had Kiesler been successful as an architect, he might not have had to be as active teaching, writing and designing window displays to earn a living. His only built architecture (with Armand Phillip Bartos) was the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

He and Stefi (b. Stefanie Frischer, 1896–1965), who married in 1920, moved to New York City in 1926, where he lived until his death and collaborated there early on with the Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp. His theoretical work embraced two lengthy manifestos, the article "Pseudo-Functionalism in Modern Architecture" (Partisan Review, July 1949) and the book ‘’Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display’’ (New York: Brentano, 1930). (In addition, his writing was extensive.)

1937–43, Kiesler was the director of the Laboratory for Design Correlation within the Department of Architecture at Columbia University, where the study program was more pragmatic and commercially oriented than his deep theoretical conceptions and ideas, such as those about "correalism" or "continuity" which concerns the relationship among space, people, objects and concepts (Creighton: 1961).

Nothing, or almost nothing, Kiesler espoused was simple. For example, for his object designs, such as the biomorphic furniture in his Abstract Gallery room of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century art salon (1942), he sought to dissolve the visual, real, image and environment into a freely flowing space. He likewise pursued this approach with his “Endless House”, a model of which was shown in 1958–59 at The Museum of Modern Art, stemming from his shop-window displays of the 1920s and his Film Guild Cinema (1929) in New York City. Pursuing display and art-gallery work, he was a window designer for Saks Fifth Avenue 1928–30 and, while in Europe, had invented the 1924 L+T (Leger und Trager) radical hanging system for galleries and museums.

His unorthodox architectural drawings and plans that he called "polydimensional" were somewhat akin to Surrealist automatic drawings.

He designed some intriguing furniture, a small number of which was featured in the yearbook of the short-lived American Union of Decorative Artist (AUDAC); he became a founding member of the organization in 1930. Some models of the furniture, none of which were reproduced in numbers as intended, have been posthumously manufactured in small quantities by various firms in Europe since 1990. The most popular is the cast-aluminum "Two-Part Nesting Table" (1935).

Keisler was often shunned by his peers, even though he was one of "the 15 leading artists at mid-century" chosen by The Museum of Modern Art in 1952 and in 1957 was a fellow at the Graham Foundation in Chicago. For example, Israeli architects disapproved of his and Bartos's serving as the architects for the Shrine of the Book (1957–65) because they were not Israelis, even though they were Jews. Further objections to Kiesler were that he had not completed his architecture studies and had built no structures, even though he had been a licensed architect in New York State since 1930. And one of his colleagues at Columbia University made the serious joke: "If Kiesler wants to hold two pieces of wood together, he pretends he's never heard of nails or screws. He tests the tensile strengths of various metal alloys, experiments with different methods and shapes, and after six months comes up with a very expensive device that holds two pieces of wood together almost as well as a screw" (Architectural Forum, vol. 86, no. 2, 1947: 140).

In 1964, the year before he died, he married Lillian Olinsey. In May 1965, he traveled to Jerusalem for the inauguration of the Shine of the Book and seven months later he died in New York City.

The Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation was established in 1997 in Vienna and annually grants the Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts.


  • "Design's Bad Boy" (February 1947), Architectural Forum, vol. 86, no. 2
  • Frederick Kiesler (October 1957), "The Art of Architecture for Art," Art News, vol. 56, no. 6, p. 41-43.
  • R.L. Held (1982), Endless Innovations: Frederick Kiesler's Theory and Scenic Design, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press | ISBN 0-8357-1299-0
  • Dieter Bogner, ed. (1988), Friederich [sic] Kiesler: Architekt, Maler, Bildhauer, 1890–1965, Vienna: Löcker | ISBN 3-85409-124-9
  • Lisa Phillips, ed. (1989), Frederick Kiesler (exhibition catalogue), Scranton, Pennsylvania: W.W. Norton | ISBN 0-87427-063-4
  • Mel Byars (intro.) (1992), "What Makes American Design American?" in R.L. Leonard and C.A. Glassgold (eds.) (1930), Modern American Design, by the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen, New York; Acanthus Press (reprint ed.) | ISBN 0-926494-01-5
  • Chantal Béret et al. (1996), Frederick Kiesler: artiste-architecte (exhibition catalog), Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou | ISBN 2-85850-882-8
  • Maria Bottero (1995), Frederick Kiesler: arte, architettura, ambientel 19/a Triennale (exhibition catalog), Milan: Electa Montadori | ISBN 88-435-5296-1
  • Thomas Creighton (July 1961), "Kiesler's Pursuit of an Idea," Progressive Architecture, vol. 42, no. 7, p. 104
  • Tulga Beyerie et al. (2005), Fredrich Kiesler, Designer: Seating Furniture of the 30s and 40s / Designer: Sitzmöbel der 30er und 40er Jahre, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz | ISBN 3-7757-1544-4
  • Stephen Phillips, "Introjection and Projection: Frederick Kiesler and His Dream Machine," 'Surrealism and Architecture,' ed. Thomas Mical (London: Routledge Press) 2004


  • "Frederick Kiesler", Hochschule für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, 1975
  • "Friedrich [sic] Kiesler—Visionär, 1890–1965", Museum moderner Kunst, Vienna, and touring, from 1988
  • "Friedrick [sic] Kiesler", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, 1989
  • Kiesler drawings and reproduction furniture, James McCoy, Inc., gallery, New York City, 1990–91
  • "Frederick Kiesler: arte, architettura, ambiente", Milan, Italy, 1995
  • "Friederick [sic] Kiesler: artiste-architecte", Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, July 3-October 21, 1996

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