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A circa-1970s four-door Chan cabinet by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne tripled its high estimate to achieve $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

Bid Smart: Philip and Kelvin LaVerne: father-son furniture artists

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A circa-1970s four-door Chan cabinet by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne tripled its high estimate to achieve $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.
A circa-1970s four-door Chan cabinet by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne tripled its high estimate to achieve $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Taking inspiration from classical art, Philip and Kelvin LaVerne (1907-1987 and b. 1937-) set the bar high in the 1960s, elevating modern furniture while never losing sight of a piece’s function. 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 furniture and decorative art. The pair worked together from the mid-1950s until Philip’s death in 1987, after which Kelvin pursued his passion for 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 1937, also in New York City, and majored in metal sculpting and furniture design at the Parsons School of Design.

A Philip and Kelvin LaVerne Eternal Forest coffee table made €44,000, or $47,251 plus the buyer’s premium, in April 2023. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers.
A Philip and Kelvin LaVerne Eternal Forest coffee table made €44,000, or $47,251 plus the buyer’s premium, in April 2023. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers.

The LaVernes’ construction methods were groundbreaking, but well rooted in history. They found inspiration in classical motifs found in Egyptian, Greek and Chinese imagery. Their patinated furniture achieved its signature acid-etched finish by being buried underground in their proprietary mix of soil and chemicals, allowing the pieces to oxidize naturally.

The pair employed ancient bronze-casting methods to make sophisticated furniture forms. Though these pieces all date to the mid-20th century, they exude a sense of history while retaining a modern flavor.

This 1960s LaVerne Chan desk, shown here in full and with a detail of its top, went out at $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioners.

This 1960s LaVerne Chan desk, shown here in full and with a detail of its top, went out at $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioners.

Their work found favor with buyers throughout their lifetime. Special pieces were often shipped far from the New York studio to supporters who saw the genius of these works, such as a 1960s Chan desk that was delivered to a lady in Casper, Wyoming. The etched, patinated, and polychromed bronze, pewter, and enamel desk, decorated with Chinese landscapes and vignettes, went out at $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.

Decades after Philip’s death ended the LaVernes’ collaboration, the market for LaVerne furniture has only continued to grow and gain momentum. Standout pieces typically bring more than $40,000, with the best of the best hitting six figures. While the designers were American, their appeal is global and many of the strongest prices in recent years have been in European auctions.

An unusual pair of LaVerne Chan side tables brought €38,000, or $40,808 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers.
An unusual pair of LaVerne Chan side tables brought €38,000, or $40,808 plus the buyer’s premium, in June 2022. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers.

“The LaVerne market is consolidating with increasing demand and rising results, according to the types of decorations,” said Marine Sanjou, deputy director of the Piasa design department in Paris. “The European market demand remains strong alongside the American market.” A fitting example is an unusual pair of hexagonal Chan side tables that brought €38,000, or $40,808 plus the buyer’s premium, in June 2022 at Piasa. The tulipwood, brass and tin tables feature lavishly embellished scenes of lively towns, pagodas and decorated buildings.

An online search to derive the inspiration for the LaVernes’ exquisitely detailed Chan pieces sadly yields little concrete results. Several Chan images do appear similar to artworks depicting the imperial city of Chang’an — the traditional name of Xi’an — and the trading that went on along the Yellow River. It’s highly likely that these scenes were in woodblock prints reproduced in books or artwork that the LaVernes would have had access to, thus inspiring some of their furniture decoration.

The battles for choice LaVerne pieces can be fierce. One of the highest prices on the LiveAuctioneers platform belongs to a circa-1970s four-door Chan cabinet that tripled its high estimate to attain $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Freeman’s in September 2021. The LaVernes’ Chan line was prolific and also extended to cabinets and tables. The etched and patinated bronze and pewter cabinet features a lavishly decorated chinoiserie-style landscape and measured 32 by 60 1/4 by 16in.

A circa-1965 Creation of Man coffee table by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2023. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
A circa-1965 Creation of Man coffee table by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2023. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

In general, LaVerne coffee tables are relatively common. Most bring a few thousand dollars, which is good news for novice collectors who seek an attractive entry-level furnishing by the pair. Such a table can represent the first step in building a collection, or it can stand alone as a powerful statement piece. Worthy of consideration is a Creation of Man coffee table that features a large etched scene on its tabletop inspired by Michelangelo’s iconic fresco in the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam. The circa-1965 table sold reasonably for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2023 at John Moran Auctioneers.

Another prize among LaVerne coffee tables is one in the Eternal Forest pattern, which was first modeled in 1965. An example in brass, enamel, tin, bronze and veneer found strong interest among European buyers, earning €44,000, or $47,251 plus the buyer’s premium at Piasa in April 2023.

An important LaVerne Eternal Forest console table realized $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.
An important LaVerne Eternal Forest console table realized $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

Many of the duo’s forms were made in limited editions, so the scarcer a piece, the higher the market demand will be. Another important example from the LaVernes’ Eternal Forest series was a console table that sold for $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Hindman.

While furniture comprised most of their work, the LaVernes dabbled in decorative arts as well. They created a massive 220-panel set of acid-etched and patinated brass window treatments circa 1965, which sold for $27,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022 at Regency Auction House. Each segment opens, twists and closes, and the set measures a whopping 22 ½ feet wide by 5 feet tall.

A 220-panel set of acid-etched and patinated brass LaVerne window treatments, dating to circa 1965, achieved $27,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022. Image courtesy of Regency Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.
A 220-panel set of acid-etched and patinated brass LaVerne window treatments, dating to circa 1965, achieved $27,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022. Image courtesy of Regency Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.

Long after these highly sculptural furnishings left the studio, LaVerne creations are still coveted. While furniture exists to fulfill a purpose, pieces by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne are works of art in and of themselves, based on the strength of their forms and the narrative quality of their etched decorations.

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Philip and Kelvin LaVerne