Erwin Hauer, Celebrated Sculptor of Architectural Screens, Dies at 91

An Erwin Hauer screen, formed from a weather-resistant composite of cement and crushed marble, clads a São Paulo residence by Studio MK27. Photography by Nelson Kon.

Austrian-American sculptor and Interior Design Hall of Fame member Erwin Hauer passed away on December 22, 2017. He was 91.

Erwin Franz Hauer was born on January 18, 1926, in Vienna. After serving compulsory military service in World War II, which left him with a leg injury and partial hearing loss, he enrolled at Vienna’s Academy of Applied Art and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. In 1955, Hauer began studies at the Rhode Island School of Design with a Fulbright scholarship. Josef Albers invited him to study at Yale University the following year. Hauer went on to teach sculpture there from 1957 to 1990, named Professor Emeritus of Sculpture upon his retirement.

Hauer’s sculptural architectural screens merged modularity with a mathematical expressiveness. Inspired first by Henry Moore, and later the Constructivist sculptors Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, Hauer cast his most popular series, Continua, from molds in concrete, gypsum, and acrylic resin using processes he developed while living in Vienna. But it was in the U.S. where he caught the attention of Murals Inc, the company that would produce and market his designs.

Hauer's screens created fascinating light and shadow play. Photography by Nelson Kon.

Hauer’s screens flourished in America’s postwar heyday, where they became emblematic of modernism. Florence Knoll installed them at the First National Bank & Trust Company of Miami in 1958, and, two years later, at the New York offices of Look magazine. They wrapped the Coca-Cola Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, and, in the late ’60’s, NASA tried to patent a pattern it developed, only to discover Hauer had beaten it to the punch. By the time production stopped in the mid ’60’s, Hauer’s screens could be found in such far-flung locales as Montreal, Mexico City, and Caracas, Venezuela.

Hauer remained dedicated to his craft throughout his life, quietly settling in Bethany, Connecticut, while teaching at Yale. Princeton Architectural Press published Erwin Hauer Continua: Architectural Screens and Walls in 2004. But it was a year earlier that Hauer reconnected with Enrique Rosado, a former student at Yale. Rosado convinced him to revive Continua for commercial production but using modern technology. The resulting screens are CNC-milled in MDF and limestone. 

Hauer's screen for Studio MK27's São Paulo residence graced the January 2012 cover of Interior Design. Photography by Nelson Kon.

Though slowed down by age, Hauer published his second book, Still Facing Infinity: Sculpture by Erwin Hauer (Images Publishing), just days before his death. John Hill, designer of both books, recalls the universal influence of Hauer’s sculptures. "Erwin's work cuts across many disciplines—his sculptor peers, of course, but also architects, mathematicians, and musicians get caught up in its elegance, complexity, and simplicity." 

Erwin Hauer holding his recently published second book, Erwin Hauer: Still Facing Infinity (Images Publishing). Image courtesy of Erwin Hauer Studios.

Interior Design editor in chief Cindy Allen inducted Hauer into the magazine’s prestigious Hall of Fame in 2008. “When his first book landed on my desk a decade ago, I became obsessed with him and his modular large-scale screens,” she recalls in Design Milk’s Friday Five. “I made several visits to his treasure trove of a barn/studio in Connecticut. Erwin’s designs are as relevant today as ever, and he’s experiencing somewhat of a resurgence, having designed leathers for Spinneybeck and screens for Knoll. To me, he was an icon, and the most lovely and gentle man.”

The cast-limestone Design 2 at Vienna's Pfarre Liesing church, 1954.
Design 5 at Look magazine's New York offices, 1960. Image courtesy of Knoll.
The CNC-milled Indiana limestone screen at New York's Centria Condos, created with Enrique Rosado in 2005.
The above pattern recreated in leather for Spinneybeck's Erwin Hauer Studio Collection.
Design 5, 12-inch module, at Chicago Hall, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Design 201 at the Knoll showroom in Chicago, 2006. Image courtesy of Knoll.
The Knoll installation's CNC-cut MDF panels.