18 December 2010

East Meets West

A detail of the patinated-bronze-and-enamel surface of a table designed in the 1960s by father-and-son artisans Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. The table, described as a console and measuring 26 inches high by 4 feet 8 inches long, is available from Fat Chance in Los Angeles. Presumably one could also use it as a tea-height cocktail table. Image from 1stdibs.com.

Chinoiserie is one of those evergreen styles that trends in and out, riding the fickle tsunami of public taste. In the eighteenth century seemingly all of Europe lusted for objects Asiatic — or at least the era's sensationally jumbled and inventive interpretation of Far East motifs. A century later there was japonisme, a related style whose Asian elements were combined, often promiscuously, and scattered across drawing rooms and boudoirs, especially in France and England. Side tables sprouted shelves shaped like delicate fans, for instance, and chandeliers writhed with serpents or dragons.

In the 1920s, when opium was a fashionable recreational drug and adventuresome social figures such as Nancy Lancaster, Carlos de Beistegui, and Wallis Spencer (the future Duchess of Windsor) were checking out the hot spots in Shanghai and Peking, chinoiserie exploded onto the aesthetic scene once more. Likely culprits in the style's renewed popularity were Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, which caused pandemonium when it made its debut in 1926 in Milan, and the glamorous movies of Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong. The result was chop-suey interiors splashed with red lacquer and sparkling with gold leaf, such as one can see at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, completed in 1927 to the designs of architect Raymond Kennedy. (Perhaps a puff of opium made especially outlandish versions of the style more bearable, at least on the residential front.) A modern-day evocation of these Jazz Age ethnic extravaganzas is the decor of one of my favorite restaurant settings: the vast dining room of Ruby Foo's Times Square in New York City, courtesy of architect David Rockwell.

Philip LaVerne, left, and his son, Kelvin, right, manhandling a round bronze tabletop in their Wooster Street studio in 1968. Image by Richard Walker for The New York Times.

I willingly admit a weakness for all the abovementioned examples of Sinophilia but nothing causes me to swoon quite as much as the sophisticated chinoiserie produced in the 1950s and 1960s by the father-and-son design team of Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. (Okay, perhaps the Royal Pavilion at Brighton comes in first.) Close relatives of the furniture and screenprint-wallpaper geniuses designers Estelle and Erwine Laverne — the couple's see-through acrylic Lily chair is a 1950s classic— the LaVernes toiled in an unassuming studio at 74 Wooster Street in New York City. There behind the building’s bland brick façade, they made, by hand, remarkable limited-edition bronze and pewter furnishings distinguished with exotic decorations that married modernism and antiquity with notable grace.

A table by the LaVernes. Measuring 4 feet 8 inches long by 26 inches high by 20 inches deep, it is available at Fat Chance in Los Angeles, California. Image from 1stdibs.com.

The best known of the father and son’s romantic works — which were given the patina of age through prolonged immersion in a supersecret stew of chemicals and an oily soil sourced somewhere in Asia — are replete with bas-relief images of pagodas, temples, mandarins, and geishas. Others pieces explore Egyptian and Etruscan themes, according to a profile of the designing duo published in The New York Times in February 1968, and one table I have come across has a bas-relief top inspired by the gardens of the Château de Versailles. But it is the team's Chan and Lo Tai series of chinoiserie furnishings that makes me inexplicably happy. I would gladly give up our nineteenth-century Chinese altar table and rickety wedding bed in exchange for something certifiably LaVerne.

A LaVerne wall plaque, available from Belkind Bigi, Tarrytown, New York. Image from 1stdibs.com.

Whether lean cocktail table, blocky cabinet, shapely wall plaque or mirror or tables wrought large, small, round or irregular, the LaVernes' chinoiserie products are ornamented with willow-treed garden views and lively urban scenes that seem to be taken straight off the panels of a Coromandel screen. (The gentlemen, who signed their works "Philip + Kelvin LaVerne," reportedly made extensive creative use of the New York Public Library and other illustrative sources.) The mysterious greenish-gold iridescence and artful weathering of the mixed-metal surfaces, often brilliantly picked out with colorful enamels, added greatly to the final effect. Such manipulations give the designs the impression of antiquity, as if they recently had been unearthed from a Ming Dynasty burial mound. However, the LaVerne works only look as if they should rest behind museum glass. As the Times article noted, their expertly etched surfaces require nothing more than “a monthly rubdown with automobile paste wax."

A side table by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. Available from gallerist Liz O'Brien. Image from 1stdibs.com.

These two LaVerne cabinets are in stock at Weiss Antiques Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan. The doors open to reveal lacquered interiors of vivid celestial blue. Image from Weiss Antiques.

A Chan bar by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. Made of bronze, pewter, and colored enamels and featuring folding extensions, the bar has double doors illustrating courtly Chinese scenes while the top is decorated with the colorful figures of peasants gathered around an ox. It is available from Cristina Grajales Gallery. Image from Cristina Grajales Gallery.


jones said...

I love Laverne furniture--at the moment the prices are rising really fast. Because of the quality and unique rendering of the chinoiserie in bronze, these pieces will most probably see an equal.

Penelope Bianchi said...

Oh! Chinoiserie was ever OUT?

I'm pretty old.......I missed it ever being out. I have loved it since I was 4 or something.......that would be 59 years!

was it "out" during that time?
Maybe just not at our house. (BRAG!)

I took a train by myself to see the Brighton Pavilion......it is a miracle I survived! Hyperventilating......LORDY!!!!!

Brilliant post; as always!!!

Concrete Jungle said...

A very intersting post...thank you!

Reggie Darling said...

I first came across a LaVerne Chinoiserie cocktail table five or so years ago while browsing through an auction house sale preview, and it stopped in my tracks. I was absolutely mesmerized. I have had my eyes out for them ever since, and have watched the prices realized at auction sky-rocket up. Thank you for this marvelous lesson about the LaVernes, and their output. Fascinating!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your informative article. We have had a "Chan" round coffee table since 1980 and love it. (We purchased it new at the Chicago Merchandise Mart.) We lost the story explanation that came with it and have been looking for information on the Lavernes for quite awhile. Does anyone know if either are still alive? Our table is in excellent condition. Though we are not considering selling it, what might it be worth? I agree with Penelope ... I love Chinoiserie (as evidenced by our red drapes in the living room and red wall in the master bedroom, which is filled with Asian items!)

Unknown said...

Thank you for your informative article on the Lavernes. We have had a Chan round coffee table since 1980 ... purchased at the Chicago Merchandise Mart. We love it, and while we are not considering selling it (it's in excellent condition), could someone tell us what it might be worth? Also, does anyone know if either Philip or Kelvin is still alive? Thanks again.

Melina Anderson Lima said...

i like these! really good