Design Masterworks 17 November 2016

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Philip and Kelvin LaVerne

Rare and Important Bather's cabinet

USA, c. 1968
acid-etched brass, enameled and patinated brass over pewter and wood
59¼ w x 15½ d x 32¼ h in (150 x 39 x 82 cm)

result: $106,250

estimate: $70,000–90,000

Cabinet features one door to each side concealing lacquered interior with one drawer and two central doors revealing two adjustable shelves. Etched signature to door face: [Philip + Kelvin LaVerne].

literature: Modern Americana: Studio Furniture From High Craft to High Glam, Iovine and Merrill, ppg. 152, 158

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Philip and Kelvin LaVerne

Methods and Influence in the Bather’s Cabinet

Philip and Kelvin LaVerne introduced a truly revolutionary furniture aesthetic in the 1960s. With equal emphasis on material, function and artistry, the LaVerne’s pioneering vision during the vibrant period of postwar design established the duo as one of the most sought after artisans of the time. Their distinctive aesthetic to this day stands without parallel.

Philip, alongside his son, Kelvin, pioneered a patination and artistic technique that showcased equally their technical prowess and unique aesthetic vision. Patinated bronze is a material that has existed in art for centuries. The pair were inspired by the rich and vibrant colors that ancient bronzes acquired through the natural aging process. However, incorporating those acquired vivid hues in their own work presented a significant challenge. After lengthy experimentation, they were able to translate the brilliant colors attained in ancient bronze works in a matter of six short weeks in a well-kept secret process.

Located in New York, first on 57th Street and later Wooster Street, the LaVernes gained local attention, and by the 1960s word spread of the their idiosyncratic approach to furniture and their designs appeared in a number of noteworthy private collections. Working primarily on commission basis, even the most sought after motifs were executed in editions of less than twelve works. Tables became the most frequently ordered, and thus exist today in the greatest number. Case pieces, such as the present lot, were produced in very limited numbers because of the complexity of the structure and time required to produce the elaborate artistic schemes. During the 1960s, works available by the LaVernes ranged in price from a few hundred dollars into the thousands for the more advanced expressions.

The present lot is from a rare series of motifs within the œuvre of the artists inspired by renowned works of fine art as diverse as Picasso, Dali and Michelangelo. These specialized subjects stand as a clear departure from the Chinosserie, Egyptian and Etruscan motifs that dominated much of the early work by the pair. Gone are the strict linear statements of the earlier decorative schemes, in favor of complex figural expressions from their artistic predecessors. From an early age, Philip was introduced to the works of his highly artistic family alongside those of the modern and contemporary visionaries. His father was a trained painter, who traveled extensively painting murals in churches and synagogues throughout the country.

This lively cabinet with its detailed figural representation draws clear visual parallels to paintings of modern masters, including Matisse and earlier works by Cezanne. The myriad of voluminous bathers whether in repose or action, relay a detailed sense of movement through outstretched arms and legs, much like the dancers and bathers first explored by Matisse in 1909 and throughout his storied career. Matisse’s gouache-painted paper cut-out entitled Blue Nude III from the permanent collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris shows distinct parallels in the figure representation. The dramatic curved contours and segmented rendering of the body convey a boldly active figure with significant three dimensional weight and monumentality rendered in only two dimensions. The essence of the form consists in a purification of elements creating a statement of extreme clarity in shape and flawless choreography that engage the viewer. Even Matisse’s recurrent saturated palette of vermillion, cobalt blue and vivid green subjects are echoed in the same brilliant hues of patina that delineate the figures in the cabinet. Looking at the door panels, one is transported into the complex landscape of the motif by these embracing figures.

The Bather's subject was particularly challenging for the LaVernes from a technical perspective in both the decoration of the door panels and the intricate patterning of the top surface. As a result, less than five examples of the Bather's cabinet are known to exist. Complex in its execution, this rare and extraordinary work is emblematic of the highly artistic time in the LaVernes’ career which ultimately lead to some of the most unique and expressive motifs executed by the pair.