George Mann Niedecken (1878–1945) was a highly regarded furniture designer and self-named “interior architect” working in Milwaukee from 1903 to 1945. Niedecken’s designs were based on a synthesis of styles: Arts and Crafts, Prairie School, Art Nouveau, and Vienna Secessionist, among others. His philosophy was to unify interior furnishings with the building as a whole by working collaboratively with the architect and the client. He produced mural paintings, art glass, textiles, and furniture to complement the structural features provided by the architect and to satisfy the client’s lifestyle.
Niedecken was born August 16, 1878, in Milwaukee. At the age of 12 he enrolled at the Wisconsin Art Institute, and by age 19 he had begun lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago, studying decorative art under Louis Millet. From 1899 to 1902 he studied art in Berlin, Austria, Paris, England, and Italy. This time in Europe contributed significantly to Niedecken’s stylistic development. In Vienna he met with Otto Wagner, a leading figure in the Secessionist group of painters and designers who stood in opposition to the conservatism of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. The Secessionists’ stripped down geometric motifs strongly influenced Niedecken’s designs. Late in 1899 Niedecken moved on to Paris and studied at the Académie Julien under leading Art Nouveau artist and designer Alphonse Mucha. Mucha’s long curves and sinuous lines can be seen in many of Niedecken’s early designs.
After returning to Milwaukee in 1902 Niedecken taught decorative arts at the Wisconsin School of Arts. He also exhibited his designs for jewelry, wallpaper, and architectural decorations at the Chicago Art Institute where his work was seen by Prairie School architects. He was introduced to Dwight Perkins, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Spencer and Myron Hunt. These contacts led to work in the studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. In his first work for Wright, Niedecken designed and painted a dining room frieze for the Susan Dana residence (1904). At the same time, Niedecken was quickly establishing himself as a freelance “interior architect” in Milwaukee, where his earliest commissions include progressive interiors for Frank Bresler (ca. 1904-1919), Emma Demmer (ca. 1907), and Adam Mayer (ca. 1907).
In October of 1907 Niedecken started his own interior design firm with John Walbridge, his brother-in-law. The Niedecken-Walbridge Company first shared a building at 436 Milwaukee Street with Frank Bresler, who fabricated many of Niedecken’s furniture designs. By 1910 Niedecken had established his own furniture factory run by the Dutch woodworker Herman Tenbroeke. By the year 1913, the factory employed twenty-five artisans and was creating custom art glass, draperies, furniture, and lighting fixtures for homes and businesses throughout the Midwest.
During his career Niedecken worked on twelve of Frank Lloyd Wright’s commissions including the Frederick Robie (ca. 1906), Avery Coonley (ca. 1908), Meyer May (1910), and David Amberg (ca. 1911) houses. In other notable commissions, he provided custom-designed furniture for architect William Drummond’s Brookfield Kindergarten (ca. 1911), as well as interior designs for the Robert Spencer-designed Denkmann house (1911-17) in Rock Island, Illinois, Frederick Babson house (ca. 1910) in Riverside, Illinois, Edison Phonograph Shop in Chicago (1915), Edna Purcell house in Minneapolis for William Purcell and George Elmslie, Henry Babson house (ca. 1912) in Riverside, Illinois for Elmslie, Downer’s Grove Kindergarten (1912) for Dwight Perkins, and Gustavus Babson house (ca. 1913) in Oak Park, Illinois for Thomas Tallmadge and Vernon Watson. Niedecken also designed interior furnishings for the Milwaukee Athletic Club (1917) and the Wright-designed Bogk house (ca. 1916) in Milwaukee.