Surface deposits on faux leather:
The Kem Weber ‘Airline chair’
Kate Wight Tyler, Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA
In 1939 Walt Disney Studios purchased hundreds of Airline Chairs for their new studio in Burbank, Los Angeles. Designed by Kem Weber in 1934-35, the streamlined wood frame was intended to be inexpensive, sold in a box, and assembled by the customer. But the chair never went into major mass production and most examples of the Airline Chair in existence today are from the Disney group, all made by a California cabinetry firm.
Throughout the 20th century many of the chairs found their way into museums across the world. The Brooklyn Museum example entered the collection in 1991 with a brown upholstered seat and back. The catalogue records at Brooklyn and the Metropolitan Museum of Art indicate this material is Naugahyde – imitation leather made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic coating atop a knit fabric backing, trademarked in 1936. However, other museums identify what appears to be the same material as leather (Milwaukee Art Museum), and original oil cloth (LACMA).
When an uneven liquid exudate developed on the surface of the Brooklyn Museum chair, an informal survey of the conservation records of other museums revealed similar condition issues. Analysis of the cover upholstery and the surface deposits was undertaken to determine if the sticky substance was a product of plastic degradation or related to an applied surface treatment – like a coating, wax, leather dressing or commercial cleaning agent. Research was undertaken to understand the intended surface properties of the original cover fabric with the help of the Walt Disney Archives and the Kem Weber Archive at the Design & Architecture Museum, University of California.
Because the chairs share a production past, differences in environment and treatment histories were examined to account for discrepancies in condition with the hope that answering questions and developing solutions for one chair contributes to the preservation of the entire group.