Metal is a material that doesn’t routinely receive special attention. The solid, steady workhorse of our collective societal leap forward, it has amassed a staggering greatest-hits collection from the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution, and virtually every progressive step since. For noted New York gallerist and design specialist Paul Donzella, that impressive body of work holds significant aesthetic relevance in the design world, as metal does not yield to just any creative whim.
“I’m always fascinated by the process and the multitude of ways that artists choose to endeavor to create cast pieces,” Donzella says. “This is a process with many different ways to achieve depending on what your desired result is. But basically, a mold is made of the object, and then your metal material is heated to a very hot temperature until it takes on a liquid form and is poured into the mold. Once the cast is made, the piece usually goes through a rigorous process of grinding and polishing to achieve the desired surface texture. After that, the piece may be plated or polished and have a specific patina applied. There are many steps to this process to achieve the end result.”
That complexity in technique and form is showcased at Donzella’s eponymous gallery in the new exhibition Heavy Metals, which runs through December 21 and features rare, poetic, raw, and surprising incarnations of the material. Stretching across eras and design movements, the show includes Art Deco works, pieces from the Hagenauer Werkstätte, brutalist sculptures, masterworks by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne, and special present-day creations by artist Ghiora Aharoni, whose fantastical silver What’s in the Rose? assemblage comes with a potent dose of the decorative zeitgeist. “One of the things I’m interested in doing in my work is recontextualizing objects and how that can allow us to reconsider their significance and give them new meaning,” says Aharoni. “By juxtaposing these pieces—which are infused with the metaphorical energy of their original meaning—in an assemblage sculpture, it creates a new narrative for the viewer to explore what connects time, rituals, and cultures.”
Devoting an entire show to one material could have been a matchy-matchy descent in wrought iron and stainless steel. Donzella’s curation has sidestepped that hazard and elegantly reminds the design public how to inch (however slowly) toward a mix of furnishings at home. We asked him about that and the lighter side of metal.
Not long ago, it occurred to me that the amount of metal pieces in my gallery inventory had increased a lot over the past 5 years. I’m always evolving my interests and tastes in terms of inventory, but this bump seemed a bit beyond that and piqued my interest as something I should explore. So this is really the catalyst for how Heavy Metals was conceived.
Can you tell us about the mix you’ve assembled?
The show really captures much more of my interest in design and sculpture than I generally have in my inventory. Once I decided to put together this collection/exhibition, I decided it would be great to dive into some areas that I loved but have not yet really been buying for the gallery inventory—sort of stretching what people generally think of when they consider Donzella and what is carried here. In my opinion, one of the unsung heroes of the show is the Hagenauer Werkstatte—sort of a lesser-known, family-run design house from Austria working during the 1920s to the 1970s creating beautiful, handcrafted sculpture and utility items made of metals and wood. I’ve always been a huge fan of their more sculptural works. The earliest historical piece is from 1922, and the span runs to 2017.
Which pieces in the exhibition are rare/special?
Well, first, let me say that I have personally chosen every piece in my show because I feel that each is special. But two that come to mind are a rare desk and chair by Donald Deskey from 1929. Both pieces are supported by copper-plated steel bands and really represent the spirit of 1930s design here in America. Another very special piece that is dear to me is a rare 1970s cocktail table by Italian designer Gabriella Crespi. It’s a beautiful oval-shaped brass table with insert shelves on either side that slide out and extend the surface space of the table. To me, this table represents a spirit of fantasy and optimism that was prevalent in the 1970s.
How did you select the pieces in this show?
The selection came to me quite organically. I knew that I wanted to represent my personal curation of favorite pieces that would include some surprises. Once I settled in a bit of aesthetic direction, it was not difficult for me to sort of know when I looked at a piece if it was right for the show or not.
Regarding the contemporary artists you’re showing here, how are they evolving or presenting metal?
One of the things that has always fascinated me about the business I am in is how my colleagues and myself all have our own way of running our businesses. We personalize it in a way that is unique to each of us as dealers. I believe the same is true for the creators. For an artist, I believe the desire to evolve and grow is paramount to their journeys. When one artist is using a computer program to precisely carve out his work in metal, another is reaching back in time to create a piece with a technique that has been obsolete and is really labor-intensive just to experience the rigor and history of it.
For a casual observer, would they be able to make the distinction between a vintage piece and a new work?
I’ve always loved the idea of carrying contemporary works that are really inspired by the period pieces that I carry. For me, this means that I can mix pieces together in my galley and never worry that “this pair of period chairs doesn’t work with that contemporary table.” This criterion within my gallery has gotten a bit lesser over time, but still, I like the blurring of lines that it creates. There are a few contemporary pieces in Heavy Metals that are very clearly new design. But beyond that, I believe most people won’t really know the old from the new. We’re not trying to fool anyone here; it’s just my personal aesthetic choice.
From an investment standpoint, how does the market look for these kinds of pieces?
I usually don’t like to think of the work I carry in terms of its investment potential. But it’s true that at the level I am dealing in, many people are thinking along those lines and so I do have to consider this question often when pricing items. I believe that market is strong for most of the work that I carry, and the potential for increased value is always there. In general, I tend to not go after the “greatest hits” of design because you can see these types of pieces in every auction and many other galleries. But I do think the market for pieces by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne, for example, is really heating up. I have a few unique pieces by them that are extraordinary, and I believe they are great investments.
Metal is naturally lauded for its strength and power—a material that can translate to solid, stoic work. What other looks or emotions are conveyed in the collection here? Can there be a lightness to metal?
Well, yes, for me there are many ways to interpret metals in design and sculpture. Because metal is so strong as a material, you can make very fine lines with it that really hold up over time. One piece from my show that comes to mind is a wall sculpture by Robert Cronbach called Hope. It’s a maquette for a larger sculpture that was commissioned for the UN General Assembly, and it’s made up of brass, copper, and steel elements and really looks almost like a kite up on the wall, with metals rods that remind me of strings.
Are there any pieces you will have a hard time parting with?
There is a lamp by Karl Hagenauer from 1923 that I have developed a strong emotional attachment to. I own it with a partner, so it’s not just mine to take home. But I seriously considered buying him out and marking it sold before the show even opened.