Philip and Kelvin LaVerne: historical yet modern designs

A ‘Chan’ coffee table by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne sold within estimate in November 2017 for $2,750 at I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers. The chinoiserie metal and wood coffee table by Philip (1908-1988) and Kelvin LaVerne (b. 1936-); the circular top with etched and enameled figural scene, signed. LiveAuctioneers and I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers image

NEW YORK – While Philip and Kelvin LaVerne didn’t invent “functional art,” they certainly perfected the genre, ensuring long-term traction in the marketplace. They created furniture as bold artistic statements yet fully functional pieces.

From their New York City studio on Wooster Street and a later showroom on East 57th Street, the father-son designers worked in pewter, silver and bronze to make signed, limited-edition pieces. The pair worked together from the mid-1950s until Philip’s death in 1987, after which Kelvin pursued his passion in sculpture.

Philip LaVerne was born in 1907 in New York City and studied under Ashcan School painter John Sloan at the Art Students League of New York. Kelvin was born in 1936, also in New York City, and majored in metal sculpting and furniture design at the Parsons School of Design.

An important Philip and Kelvin LaVerne Bathers cabinet, circa 1968, sold for $85,000 in November 2016. LiveAuctioneers and Wright image

The LaVernes’ construction methods were innovative yet well rooted in history. They found inspiration in classical motifs from Egyptian, Greek and Chinese imagery. Their patinated furniture achieved its signature acid-etched finish by being buried underground in the designers’ proprietary mix of soil and chemicals, allowing the pieces to oxide naturally. The pieces have a timeless appeal and are well suited for both modernist and traditional interiors. In 1960s advertisements, Philip created the tag line, “It’s not just functional and not just art, it’s an investment.” Though best known for their sculptural furniture, their oeuvre also included fine art and sculpture.

Set of four Philip & Kelvin LaVerne mixed-metal plaques, each 10 inches square. Label on verso: Tennessee Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood, Nashville 5, Tennessee. Sold for $10,070 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions, May 6, 2017. LiveAuctioneers and Palm Beach Modern Auctions image

“Philip and Kelvin LaVerne employed centuries-old bronze-casting methods to create furniture and decorative art with sophisticated forms in classical/traditional motifs. Though created in the mid-20th century, LaVerne furniture conveys a feeling of historical relevance and, simultaneously, some modern sensibilities,” said Wade Terwilliger, president of Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

Decades after their making, LaVerne pieces are still desirable. “While any cabinet or table serves a purpose, LaVerne furniture possesses the same qualities we seek in art through the sculptural forms and the narrative of the etched designs — characteristics much sought after by today’s buyers,” said Terwilliger.

This Philip and Kelvin LaVerne console table, 1962, nearly doubled its high estimate of $25,000 when it achieved $47,500 in June 2011 at a Rago’s auction. LiveAuctioneers and Rago Arts & Auction Center image

Among the most desirable forms are the cabinets and console tables created in very small editions. The “Chan Li” cabinet has gone as high as $47,500 at auction. “Custom dining tables and console tables also hit highs at auction including an ‘Etruscan’dining table which we sold in 2015 for $26,000 ($32,500 with 25% buyer’s premium),” Terwilliger said, noting that coffee tables are fairly abundant with the exception of the “Eternal Forest” pattern, which has sometimes sold above $20,000.

“Scarcity only adds to the desirability, as many of the forms were produced in limited editions. As a result, the market for their works continues to increase.”

A Philip and Kelvin LaVerne ‘Chan’ bronze and pewter credenza cabinet brought $47,500 in March 2011 at Myers Fine Art. LiveAuctioneers and Myers Fine Art image

View more Philip and Kelvin LaVerne furniture and decorative art on LiveAuctioneers.

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