Phillip Lloyd Powell

A Life in Craft

Phillip Lloyd Powell is unique in the American craft tradition for the unmatched longevity of his career spanning over six decades. “I am an artist working with furniture” proclaimed Powell. Indeed, his artistic vision, a melding of modernism with organic ornament, stands as a testament to his unique eye and sensibilities.

Powell working in his New Hope, Pennsylvania studio
Powell working in his New Hope, Pennsylvania studio

Constructed from directly carved panels of solid American black walnut, this fine pair of lounge chairs illustrates the best of Powell’s carving technique. The overall form of the chairs is a melding of minimalism and a classic Chesterfield form. Starting with the geometry of the cube, Powell does a Craft reworking of Le Corbusier’s Grand Comfort chairs, but instead of the Machine Age aesthetic exposed in the Bauhaus classic, Powell humanizes the forms. In Powell’s hands the decorative panels echo and respond to the natural formations of the tree. Like his famous neighbor, Powell expresses ‘the soul of the tree’ but he does so with an artist’s vision and level of intervention that Nakashima would not allow.

The chair base is formed in an octagon and swivels to compensate for the weight of the carved form. The channeled upholstery and rolled arm are a nod to the classic Chesterfield form, but Chesterfields that would only exist in a private club of Powell’s imagination. Illustrated in a copy of an early catalog, these chairs were produced in extremely small numbers. Like so much of Powell’s work, these chairs were made for a patron, Mana Tancredi and remained in her collection for decades.

Unlike his early collaborator, Paul Evans, Powell always remained connected to the creation of his furniture. Powell was a maker, not a designer running a large studio. Although the number of pieces he produced throughout his lifetime is modest in comparison to that of Evans or Nakashima, for Powell, making, was always his first love.

I am an artist working with furniture.

—Phillip Lloyd Powell

Phillip Lloyd Powell

Celebrated American furniture maker and designer Phillip Lloyd Powell was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1919. Powell is best known for his innovative and hands-on approach to the production of studio furniture that disregarded industrial mass production methods in favor of creating limited runs of meticulously detailed, hand-carved pieces.

A self-taught natural at the craft of woodworking, Phillip Lloyd Powell began creating custom furniture for friends and family as a teenager. Looking to further develop his craft, he enrolled at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) in 1939 to study mechanical engineering. His academic career was cut short in 1940 when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. During his service as a meteorologist, stationed in Great Britain, Powell dreamed of returning home and settling in the quiet, river town of New Hope; his dream came to fruition in 1947 when he purchased an acre of land in the Bucks County artists’ community. Powell built his own home and earned a living selling works by noted mid-century designers such as Herman Miller and Isamu Noguchi.

At the urging of his friend George Nakashima, already an established studio furniture maker, Powell began designing his own furniture. He established a showroom in the heart of New Hope in 1953, open only by appointment and on Saturday evenings. In 1955, he began sharing his studio with Paul Evans. The two artists shared a creative space until 1966, growing their businesses and collaborating on select furniture designs. In addition to his detailed woodworking, Powell also created pieces in stone, metal and slate.

Though Powell began his work in the middle of the 20th century, his designs stand apart from the archetypal clean, sharp lines of many other mid-century makers. Along with his fellow Delaware Valley Modernists, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, he sought to elevate the natural form of wood and preferred organic curves and materials. A classic example of this is the singular, sculpted fireplace now on permanent exhibition, along with several other important pieces, at the Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. But Powell’s work was also inspired by his love of world travel; The Powell Door, an intricately carved and brightly painted pine door (also at the Michener Museum of Art) suggests the influence of India, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Morocco.

Owing to the intricacies of his designs and his preference to work alone, Powell is estimated to have produced less than 1,000 pieces before his death in 2008.

Auction Results Phillip Lloyd Powell