Philip and Kelvin LaVerne (Philip: 1908-1988; Kelvin: b. 1936) artists, artisans, sculptors, furniture makers
New York-based father and son team Philip and Kelvin LaVerne designed and produced furniture and decorative arts from the 1950s to the 1980s. Philip had studied painting under Ashcan School realist John Sloan, and son Kelvin studied art history, metal sculpting, and furniture design at the Parsons School of Design. In the mid-1950s, father and son experimented with ways of combining their skills with the objective of creating pieces that would function both as furniture and as fine art. A few years later they began producing limited-edition designs from their Wooster Street studio. (They would later open a gallery on E. 57th Street.) They made tables, cabinets, and decorative pieces utilizing an array of innovative techniques, Philip concerning himself more with the materials and graphic elements, and Kelvin with the overall form and shape. Metals were their preferred material, most notably bronze, and often enameled bronze over pewter. These materials were cast, carved, acid-etched and patinated. They employed their shared interest in ancient, classical, and Eastern art to singular effect in the reliefs and finishes of their designs. Their artistic vision led them to create more adventurous pieces that moved away from traditional to more unusual sculptural forms, including one of a kind custom commissions.
To achieve their rich signature finishes, the LaVernes developed highly idiosyncratic methods, including burying the metals in a secret mixture of soil and chemicals for up to six weeks. Colored enamels were added to the resulting patinas to enhance the etchings and reliefs, notably in the more elaborate Chinoiserie scenes. As well as Chinese art, the team referenced ancient Greek friezes, Egyptian wall paintings, and even Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Notable among their contemporary art influences were Pablo Picasso, who inspired their creation of a pair of side tables, After Picasso (1965). Henry Moore’s influence can be detected in the rare table Reclining Nude #1, one of their pieces that ingeniously use a cast human sculptural figure as table supports, as well as in some of their more freeform pieces. The use of negative space in the Metamorphosis Table (1959) also makes a decidedly modern sculptural statement. Still other pieces are simply ornamented with striking geometric patterns. Overall, the LaVernes’ unique design approach and techniques give their works a distinctively timeless quality and render them instantly recognizable. LaVerne pieces have entered collections worldwide. For example, Odyssey Table I, which depicts scenes inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, and with fluted column sections comprising the supports, was purchased by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in the 1960s. Other famous figures such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Hollywood comedian Sid Caesar are known to have bought LaVerne, as well as certain Middle Eastern royals. Rare pieces, such as the Pharaoh Coffee Table (1965), which features a round hieroglyph-pictorial table top on a pyramiding base, and the K'ang Hsi Extension Dining Table (1970) with etched Chinoiserie, have sold at Sotheby’s for unprecedented prices. A patinated bronze and pewter cabinet entitled Les Femmes (1970) realized the highest auction price for a LaVerne to date at Christie’s New York in 2011.
Some well-preserved LaVerne pieces may still retain the label from the New York studio, and the Lavernes’ joint signature is usually visible on the surface, often within the relief scenes. Their work has also been exhibited at galleries, with the designers themselves having published catalogs enumerating their array of styles and patterns. As the LaVernes themselves always emphasized, every piece of furniture they produced effectively integrated art and design. Today, their rigorous production methods and aesthetic vision can be seen as having more parallels to avant-garde furniture design than to the dominant modernism of their contemporaries. Increasingly sought-after for its singular appeal, their work has assumed a standout place in 20th-century design.
The Poetry of the Soul: Works of Philip & Kelvin LaVerne, 2008
The Art of Philip LaVerne: 1960s Studio Catalog