|John Vesey, furniture designer and future felon, sitting in a
solid-aluminum Thonet-style rocking chair in his New York City
showroom, 1965. Image from The New York Times.
As the strippers in the musical Gypsy! state in clarion tones, "You gotta have a gimmick." This is true in so many professions, whether bumping and grinding or designing furniture. For John Vesey, shown above, a once prominent but now puzzlingly obscure American talent of the 1950s and 1960s, the gimmick was taking traditional furniture forms and translating them into crisp, cool metal, usually aluminum and stainless steel, often with accents of polished brass.
Who took his glittering bait? Oil magnate Howard Hughes, for one, as well as art dealer Leo Castelli, international public-relations man Count Rudi Crespi, fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, and Ira Howard Levy, the president of Estée Lauder cosmetics. A Vesey profile published in 1965 fairly swooned listing the designer's high-society clients, among them fashion model-turned-Warhol superstar Jane Holzer; heiress Wendy Vanderbilt; Italian socialite Countess Gioconda Cicogna; automotive divorcée Anne McDonnell Ford; the beautiful Sunny von Bulow; the even lovelier Isabel Eberstadt; French aristocrat Count Charles de Rohan-Chabot; Greek shipping heiress Chrysanthe Goulandris; stylist Vidal Sassoon; Governor Nelson Rockefeller; and Condé Nast president and chairman Iva Patcévitch. The same article declared Diana Ross of The Supremes "one of John Vesey's best customers."
|A pair of Vesey-designed metal chairs with wickerwork seats and backs, from the 1960s. The chairs are being offered at the 2012 Winter Antiques Show by dealer Liz O'Brien.
|A steel campaign-style chair by Vesey, 1957. Image from The New York Times.
Today it is major dealers who are transfixed by Vesey's work, and they are bringing his designs to a new generation. Gallerists R. Louis Bofferding, Liz O'Brien, and Gail Garlick of Good Design are among today's keenest admirers. Bofferding, for instance, once possessed one of Vesey's most striking designs, a round occasional table whose bulbous openwork metal base was sparked by, of all things, an American wool winder. In O'Brien's current stock is a pair of Directoire-inflected chairs, shown above, dating from the 1960s. She will have them on display in her booth at the Winter Antiques Show, which opens to the public on Friday, 20 January.
As this blog noted at the time, at the 2008 Modernism Show in New York City, Garlick showcased several vintage Vesey pieces in Good Design's sparsely decorated stand—two lounge chairs modelled after Cuban planter's chairs, a console whose glass top is supported by stainless-steel sawhorses, and a polished-aluminum campaign-style bench. It was arguably the biggest collection of his work pulled together in one place within recent memory. Garlick's next big Vesey show begins 20 January, at her gallery, Good Design; it runs for six weeks.
|A pair of Vesey benches made of powder-coated wrought aluminum. The shape is a modern rendition of the Savonarola chair of the Middle Ages. The benches are offered by Good Design, and the image is from Artnet.
|A pair of Vesey's calfskin-upholstered chairs from his "luxurious, costly" Maximilian Group, circa 1958. The chairs and its matching sofa were inspired by classic Cuban planter's chairs. Two of these were among the furnishings of photographer Cecil Beaton's London townhouse. A version with fine woven-aluminum mesh as the sole upholstery cost $355 in 1958. Image from Design Addict.
Six-foot-six-inches tall and matinée-idol handsome, John Vesey Colclough Jr was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on 22 September 1924, the only son and youngest child of John Vesey Colclough Sr, an investment banker, and his wife, Bertha. (His elder siblings were Florence, Marjorie, and Norina.) The family was not only prosperous but distinguished, descended from a famous Irish landlord of the 18th century, Vesey Colclough, chatelain of a much-admired County Wexford landmark, Tintern Abbey. And Colclough Sr's dynamic sister, Pauline Adams, was one of the bright lights of America's women's suffrage movement.
During the Depression, however, the finances of Colclough's parents collapsed. To make ends meet, his mother took a job managing an apartment house, while his father found employment as a salesman in the local traffic bureau. According to a profile published in 1958 in The New York Times, John Vesey Colclough Jr intended to be a museum curator and actually studied at Harvard for a year. But on 19 May 1943—after a brief stint in banking—he joined the Merchant Marine. Following World War II he surfaced in Manhattan as an antiques dealer with a specialty in 18th- and 19th-century French and English furniture and art. By this time he also had dropped his Irish surname (which was pronounced COAL-claw in case you were wondering).
|A button-tufted leather Chesterfield sofa with metal legs by John Vesey, circa 1960. In 1965 an article in The New York Times illustrated a smaller version anchoring the Manhattan living room of art dealer Leo Castelli, which had been decorated by interior designer John Elmo. Another article pointed out that Vesey's sofa's cost $300 a foot. The example shown here sold for $55,000 at Wright last year.
|Once part of the furnishings of the Rome apartment of Rudi and Consuelo Crespi, this brass-and-steel Vesey writing table (now sold) was recently in the stock of Manhattan dealer Gerald Bland.
|Count Rodolfo "Rudi" Crespi at the same writing table, in the master bedroom of his apartment in Palazzo Odescalchi in Rome, Italy, 1969, which was decorated by American expatriate designer Howard Dilday. Until recently the writing table stood in the New York City apartment of Crespi's widow, Consuelo. Image by Patrick Morin from The New York Times.
"Steel is putty in John Vesey's hand," The New York Times reported in 1958, noting that the designer utilized craftsmen in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Long Island for the metalwork, while the leather upholstery was given over to artisans in Manhattan's Chinatown. "He bends [steel], tapers it, and turns it," the newspaper's reporter Rita Reif explained, "ending up with chairs and tables as beautiful as the antiques that inspired him."
Beautiful, yes, but the results meld surreality, industrial chic, and sadomasochism. There is something perverse, after all, in taking an otherwise uncontroversial furniture form like Thonet bentwood rocker and reproducing it in gleaming solid aluminum and replacing its woven-cane panels with fine, anodized metal mesh. That unexpected transmutation takes the Art Nouveau icon from cozily curlicue to brutally chic—and with exceptional attention to quality. Vesey's aluminum creations, Design Forecast magazine favorably noted in 1959, are "wrought, not cast; [the] frame of each chair or sofa is one solid piece."
|A 19th-century American wool winder, used in the production of yarn, was the inspiration for this hallmark Vesey design: an openwork metal occasional table. This example is available from dealer John Salibello.
|A Vesey ottoman, circa 1965. Image from Mondo Cane.
Over the next decade Vesey was a wild success, his talents spoken of in the same breath as contemporary tastemakers such as John Dickinson and Baron Alessandro Albrizzi. By 1969 he intended to take even greater leaps of style. As Vesey explained to The New York Times, "I want to copy this 1800 antler chair in metal. It would be a real kooky chair for a far-out apartment." Indeed it would have but whether that swinging design made it off his drawing board is unknown. What is certain is that Vesey's high-flying career came crashing to the ground two years later.
|A pair of Napoléon III-inspired armchairs by Vesey, made of chromed steel and leather. They sold in 2011 at Rago Auctions for $13,000. The original model cost $465 in 1958. Image from Artnet.
After sexually assaulting a 17-year-old high-school dropout he picked up early one morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and took to his duplex townhouse apartment at 105 East 64th Street, Vesey was sentenced to five years in prison. During this enforced absence from the American design scene, his company, John Vesey Designs Inc., was sold, sold again, and eventually closed. As for Vesey, after his release, he lived quietly and obscurely, ultimately dying of pneumonia on 14 April 1992 in Rhinebeck, New York.
|Offered by the Manhattan gallery Good Design, this Vesey cocktail table from the 1960s is made of polished stainless steel and brass and bears its original 3/4-inch glass top. Image from Artnet.
Bender, Marylin, "In Rome, Home Can Be a Palace or a Nest of Steel and Plastic," The New York Times, 19 May 1969
De Halve Maen (Holland Society of New York, 1981), page xxxiv
Design Forecast, Volume 1 (Aluminum Company of America), 1 January 1959, page 20
"Designer Gets 5 Years," The New York Times, 22 January 1972
Drayton, Cynthia A. "John Vesey: Style and Scandal," Modern Magazine, Fall 2011
Fosburgh, Lacey, "Furniture Designer Convicted of Homosexual Attack on Boy," The New York Times, 16 December 1971
"Home Beat: David Katz Has Made Secret Hiding Places His Business," The New York Times, 30 March 1978
Klemensrud, Judy, "5 Place-Setting Men Test Skill at Table-Setting," The New York Times, 21 September 1968
O'Brien, George, "New on the Home Front," The New York Times, 15 March 1964
Reif, Rita, "A New Age of Metals," The New York Times, 8 August 1965
Reif, Rita, "It's Lethal Looking, It's Weirdly Shaped—and It's Back in Style," The New York Times, 19 March 1969
Reif, Rita, "New Styling on an Old Design," The New York Times, 11 November 1967
Reif, Rita, "Steel Is Putty in Hands of Furniture Designer," The New York Times, 28 August 1958
Sheppard, Eugenia, "Newest Status Symbol—Furniture by John Vesey," Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 19 May 1968, page 11G
"Steel Takes Its Place in Decoration," The New York Times, 5 October 1957
Sverbeyeff, Elizabeth, "Life with Pop," The New York Times, 2 May 1965
"Van Gogh Canvas to Be Auctioned," The New York Times, 6 November 1955