Collecting American Studio Furniture

Dynamic, expressive, tactile: handcrafted American Studio Furniture of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, once all but forgotten, has exploded in cachet – and value, says Emma Crichton Miller

From top: 1973 Wendell Castle black walnut desk, sold for $471,000, at Sotheby’s. 1983 Judy Kensley McKie mahogany Leopard couch, sold for £150,000 at Phillips. c1969 Paul Evans steel and bronze console, $100,000 from Todd Merrill Studio
From top: 1973 Wendell Castle black walnut desk, sold for $471,000, at Sotheby’s. 1983 Judy Kensley McKie mahogany Leopard couch, sold for £150,000 at Phillips. c1969 Paul Evans steel and bronze console, $100,000 from Todd Merrill Studio

In December 2006, a magnificently patterned, wildly irregular table was sold for $822,400 at Sotheby’s in New York. Made from a cross-section slice of a redwood tree trunk, it was the highlight of an auction dedicated to master woodworker George Nakashima. The sale, says Jodi Pollack, co-worldwide head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s, “marked a watershed in the market of American Studio Furniture” – the movement of which American-born Nakashima was a leading proponent from his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “The pieces were starting to be recognised as pioneering examples of collectable, sculptural design.”

Nakashima’s daring has attracted enthusiastic collectors from Nelson Rockefeller to Steven Spielberg and Diane von Furstenberg. “Without any doubt, it’s the best table he ever built,” says the buyer of the Arlyn table, Rudy Ciccarello, the businessman-philanthropist behind the new Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in St Petersburg, Florida, due to open this summer. “It will be shown in its own gallery space with the Conoid chairs” – Nakashima’s iconic, spindle-backed, cantilevered design of the 1960s (an example of which is available on 1stdibs for £5,770). 

Nakashima’s work has not always been so revered, says Robert Aibel, owner of the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia and a leading dealer in American Studio Furniture. “In 1985, I had a call from a doctor wanting to sell his Nakashima dining table and chairs,” recalls Aibel. “He referred to it as ‘used furniture’. I paid him $3,000 for everything. I sold it for $6,000 in 1985; today it would fetch $40,000.” Aibel’s current stock includes a version of the Conoid bench ($65,000), with the same spindled back sitting atop a hunk of cherry wood, as well as three prototype chairs ($75,000 each) from 1941.

1988 George Nakashima redwood and walnut Arlyn table, sold for $822,400 at Sotheby’s
1988 George Nakashima redwood and walnut Arlyn table, sold for $822,400 at Sotheby’s

This Arts and Crafts-inspired movement was embraced by designers on both coasts, including Wharton Esherick, Phillip Lloyd Powell, Paul Evans, Sam Maloof, Arthur Espenet Carpenter and Wendell Castle. From the 1970s, women makers such as Rosanne Somerson, Judy Kensley McKie (whose idiosyncratic 1983 Leopard couch fetched £150,000 at Phillips London last year) and Mira Nakashima – George’s daughter – also joined the fray. While each had their own, distinctive aesthetics, all shared creative ambition and dedication to hand processes, from Evans’ inventive metalwork to Castle’s virtuoso wood carving. 

If Nakashima is the best-known figure, Castle is a close second, blurring the boundaries between art and design with his sculptural furniture. Particularly prized, says Aibel, are assertive creations from the 1960s and 1970s exhibiting his signature technique: glueing together very thin layers of wood, then carving the resultant mass. His suave black-walnut stack-laminate executive desk from 1973, for example, was chased to $471,000, over an estimated $150,000-$200,000, at Sotheby’s New York last December, while in June Phillips will offer a 1967 oak Butterfly love seat with an estimate of $60,000-$80,000.

“Most people did not realise Wendell’s true talent until very late,” says Loic Le Gaillard, co-founder of London’s Carpenters Workshop Gallery, which represents the late Kansas-born artist. “He was still working up until his death last year and he produced exceptional pieces that revived ideas he first explored in the 1960s.” These pieces have also revived interest in his earlier work: a pair of curvy, hand-sculpted Zephyr chairs from 1971 are priced at $25,000 by New York dealer Emily Evans Eerdmans, who also has Castle’s whimsical Rabbit Ear rocking chair, dated 1981, for $45,000. 

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Todd Merrill, another New York-based dealer who has followed the market since the late-1990s (and written about it in the book Modern Americana Studio Furniture), has a particular passion for the work of Paul Evans – something he shares with Stella McCartney, whose new New Bond Street store features a piece by the designer. Merrill’s current stock includes a c1969 steel and bronze console ($100,000) fronted in jewel-toned panels, and a striking screen ($40,000) in a fish-scale pattern, created with Phillip Lloyd Powell. 

Powell worked with Paul Evans throughout the 1950s and 1960s. For Dubrovnik-based Belgian developer Frédéric Hanrez, Powell’s gold-plated pieces have most appeal; he has a 1960s gold‑leaf-, walnut- and slate-embellished four-door cabinet, while a c1962 wall-mounted gold-leaf and walnut cabinet was recently sold by The Exchange Int for $55,000. “I came to American Studio Furniture through Nakashima,” says Hanrez, whose first purchase was a cabinet 10 years ago. “Then I discovered Paul Evans, Phillip Lloyd Powell and Sam Maloof. Initially, I bought everything. Now I collect only unusual pieces.” His favourites include a Nakashima maple-burr table that “brings the spirit of the forest into my home” and one of Evans’ early forged cabinets with a slate top.

“Evans’ pieces have such great energy,” says Ken Bolan, managing director of London’s Talisman antiques emporium. “We sell his work throughout Europe as well as in the Middle East. I sold a Paul Evans this morning: a 1973 walnut and brass Cityscape dining table for £22,000.” He currently has a spectacular pair of rare c1970s Totem Cityscape cabinets, in brass and chrome, for £76,000. “The political climate has stalled prices,” he says, “but that makes it a good time to buy.”

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