The Hot Bid: Phillip Lloyd Powell fireplace sold for record $96K

A carved and sculpted black walnut fireplace created by Phillip Lloyd Powell in the 1950s. Rago Auctions image

What you see: A carved and sculpted black walnut fireplace created circa 1956 and 1958 by Phillip Lloyd Powell. It set a record for any piece by Powell when it sold for $96,000 against an estimate of $25,000 to $45,000 at Rago in April 2008.

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

Let’s start by discussing Phillip Lloyd Powell and why his work still speaks to us. It’s a complicated answer. The first is he’s part of the New Hope school, and the New Hope school is considered a very relevant school of design, which includes George Nakashima and Paul Evans. Two, Powell is really good. His idea of furniture design is singular. Three, he was very hands-on. Paul Evans made 35,000 pieces. George Nakashima, 35,000 to 40,000. Phillip Lloyd Powell, maybe 1,000. Of the three of them, it works to his detriment. It’s hard to create a market if there’s not much there. But when you buy a piece by Phillip Lloyd Powell, you buy something he had his hands on. With Powell, it was personal.

In what ways is this Powell fireplace typical of his output, and in what ways is it unusual? Powell’s gift with wood was to draw out drama in grain flow, knots and the overall organic form and feel. He did this by carefully choosing where in the grain carving and shaping would occur. He started with an overall vision and worked a piece down to creating contrasts between honed and chipped carved surfaces, often on the very same board. That’s what’s typical here. What’s unusual here is the grandness of the gesture.

The grandness of the gesture? What I’d say is the scale of it. It’s big and imposing. It almost imitates the flames of the fire in the way he treats the wood.

Is this the only fireplace Powell made? He did stuff for fireplaces, such as mantels. A sculpted wall like this–it’s the only one I’ve seen.

What’s the story behind the Powell fireplace? Did he create it on commission, or did he make it on spec as a showpiece for his New Hope showroom? My understanding is it was an on-spec piece for the showroom, probably to show his chops as an artist.

The Powell fireplace looks very powerful to me. Almost masculine. It is, but the treatment of the wood is more delicate. It’s like a fire licking a fireplace. It’s more organic. It certainly defines the New Hope school of woodworking. George Nakashima let the wood speak. Phil had more of a hand in letting it talk.

What, if anything, do we know about how the Powell fireplace was made – how it was carved and sculpted? If Powell left no notes, what can we tell, just by looking, how challenging this would have been to make? From living artists that worked with Phil, such as Dorsey Reading and Charles Tiffany, we know that his most important tools were custom-made pneumatic chisels. An automotive-use air chisel was modified and specially shaped to make deep gauges in small areas. To finish off roughly chiseled surfaces, semi-flexible shapes of rubber and foam were cut out of larger sheets and used as backing for sanding wood smooth.

Is this Powell fireplace made from a single piece of wood, or is it made from several pieces that have been joined? It’s made from a number of slabs of American black walnut. There were a few sources for the lumber. Traveling salesmen would sell lumber to artists like George Nakashima. Powell would get the pieces most others didn’t buy or want because they were too irregular for conventional use. Powell also used to source similar boards from a mill in Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania.

How did Powell fireproof the fireplace? I’m guessing that the fire itself is set far enough back. It was in fabulous condition no indication even of it being dried out by fire.

How does the Powell fireplace show his mastery? He used wood, and he used great wood. The scale of the piece shows his capacity to sculpt. This is on a grand scale and gives him a lot of room to roam with his particular talents and his particular eye. You can see it as mirroring the fire in the fireplace, the sensuous, organic movement to it.

I see that the Powell fireplace lacks a mantel, or a shelf to put things on. I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the artist … Exactly. We can only guess, but why interrupt that? Leave it alone. Just leave it be.

I realize you last handled the Powell fireplace in 2008, but could you tell me what it was like in person? Are there aspects of the piece that the image doesn’t quite get across? I can remember what it looks like in person because it’s out on display at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It has a presence to it. I’ve seen hundreds of pieces of his work. Powell was on that day. Though it is large, it’s more captivating than imposing, like the scale is ameliorated by the treatment of the wood and the overall design, curvaceous sculpting that unifies all the elements of it.

The provenance of the Powell fireplace includes Dorsey Reading, a noted craftsman who worked with Paul Evans. How did that enhance its interest to collectors? It’s nice to know it was a bench-made piece, made to spec to show off his chops, but the authorship was never in doubt. Pieces like this are so self-explanatory. If you understand organic midcentury woodworking if you’re into that this thing will talk to you.

What do you recall of the auction? We knew the piece was going to do well. We knew there was institutional interest [interest from museums]. There was a buzz before the sale.

The sale took place in April 2008. Powell passed away in March 2008. Might the timing of his death have helped push the fireplace to a record auction result? It’s certainly possible, though I think the fireplace stood on its own merits well enough. The Michener Art Museum needed a stellar example of his work, and I’m confident they’d have chased it in any case.

Were you surprised that the Powell fireplace set a world auction record for the artist? I think I was a bit surprised, but that says more about my lack of knowledge of the material at the time. And fireplaces are not easy to sell. It’s a site-specific object. They usually don’t go well.

Are you surprised the Powell fireplace still holds the record, 12 years later? No. No. Of the thousand or so things he made, I’ve personally seen 400 or 500. I’ve had others that are special. This is the best of them. My guess is if it sold now, it would bring more.

Do pieces that Powell made to wow people in his showroom tend to sell better at auction than those he did on commission? I don’t know. I don’t know how many he made on spec for the showroom. I would say it’s a small percentage. I didn’t know the fireplace was on spec until I got it from Dorsey Reading, who was there at the time. But those guys didn’t keep records. The showroom was open on Saturdays from 9 p.m. to midnight, after the Bucks County Playhouse got out. They were artists during the 1960s. They were having fun, doing their thing. It was very slapdash.

Why does this Powell fireplace stick in your memory? I’m something of an expert on Phillip Lloyd Powell. I’ve been selling Powell’s work since the 1990s, and I’ve handled many pieces. I really do think I’ve seen more of Powell’s work than anybody. This is the best I’ve come across. It’s not one of the best, it’s the one.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.