More than 30 years ago, my wife, Helene, and I started collecting. She loved tribal masks—African, Oceanic, Indonesian, etc.—while I focused on medical, scientific, and industrial artifacts.
“George Lucas’s designers must have found inspiration in these smoke helmets.”
I’ve spent my career as a creative director, painter, and sculptor, so I always approached collecting as an artist. Over the years, without even realizing it, our collections began to influence each other until they merged into their own unique specialty. We now think of this new genre as industrial tribal art. Whether it’s medical teaching mannequins and headgear, early smoke rescue helmets, or industrial masks, when properly displayed, these objects have the visual presence of tribal masks.
This pair of early rescue masks, shown above, dates from between the mid-1800s and World War I. They look a bit familiar, right? Almost 100 years before Darth Vader and C-3PO hit the big screen in “Star Wars” in 1977, these two smoke helmets were worn by firefighters carrying out rescues in smoke-logged buildings. The buzz among collectors is that George Lucas’s designers must have found inspiration in these smoke helmets and others like them. In fact, one well-known 19th-century manufacturer was named Vajen-Bader—you could easily get the name Vader from that.
The black leather helmet on the left is labeled “Respirations Apparat” by “G.B.Konic Altona,” was made in Hamburg, Germany, and has the look of an African Dan mask. The brass, three-quarter face mask to its right was made in Paris by J. Mandet. This type of breathing mask had a very simple apparatus, allowing only a short range of operation. When used, air would be forced into the helmet through no more than 13 meters of flexible tubing by means of a bellows operated remotely from the outside. Both of these masks have mica lenses to help protect the eyes from heat.