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The signature of Philip and Kelvin LaVerne is usually easy to spot. Here it appears within the decorative scheme on a ‘Chan’ occasional table. Courtesy Wright Auctions

Philip and Kelvin Laverne: Bright ideas in heavy metal

NEW YORK – Philip Laverne (1908-1988) and his son Kelvin (b. 1936) sought to create pieces that were both functional furniture and expressions of fine art. Their approach, their designs, their techniques were unique and thus their works remain instantly recognizable. Supported by wooden frames, the tables and cabinets were clad in bronze, brass, and pewter, which had been cast, carved, etched, incised and patinated. The strong metal forms become showstoppers in an interior, and collectors scroll through auction catalogs to find the best.

Major surfaces are often covered by low-relief figural scenes inspired by archaeological or art historical sources. Many designs are drawn from Chinese art, while others reflect ancient Greek friezes or even Egyptian wall paintings. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling was also a theme that appealed to the LaVernes. Another group of furniture from their workshop is more simply ornamented with repeated geometric patterns. Full-bodied sculptural figures were at times used as dramatic table supports. Some designs were issued as a series, others seem one-of-a-kind. Surprises turn up all the time.

Richard Wright has sold many examples at his Chicago-based auction firm and even chose one for his personal collection: “LaVerne furniture is totally unique within American design, and it’s readily identifiable. The pieces pull together all kinds of disparate elements including archaeological and art historical references, which are then applied to some pretty muscular forms. Sometimes the objects are very decorative in themselves, but oftentimes the forms are architectonic and plain with heavy pattern applied to them.

“The materiality is completely essential to the work. A lot of the forms are quite modernist, but with this archaeological treatment done to them, they become very compelling. The surface feels like unearthed old metal. Fortunately for collectors, while some of the furniture is very expensive, some of it is relatively accessible. I actually live with a LaVerne coffee table at my house, and I have young kids – it’s incredibly durable,” he said.

In addition to distinctive forms and decoration, LaVerne furniture has a characteristic patina carefully cultivated through processes developed by the furniture makers. One technique involved burying the metal elements in special soil compounds to achieve the appearance of ancient artifacts. While some tables have an overall dark bronze finish, those with decorative surface patterns use the contrast of dark and light metals to make the design pop out for the viewer. Colored enamels were added to enhance figures in the more elaborate chinoiserie scenes. Because the LaVernes put so much effort into the decoration and patination of their pieces, condition is an important element in determining present value.

After experimenting in the late 1950s, the LaVernes, father and son, began to produce limited edition designs in the 1960s, some of which are much rarer than others. The cabinetmakers’ joint signature is usually clearly visible on the surface, often within the relief scenes. Well-preserved examples may retain a paper label from the team’s New York studio at 46 E. 57th St. The cabinetmakers published their own sales catalogs – The Art of Philip LaVerne – which are helpful in determining the names of styles and patterns. The workshop advertised, emphasizing the union of art and functionality, and examples entered collections around the country.

A rare free-form cocktail table sold for $17,080 last year at Palm Beach Modern auctions had a printed label for “Philip LaVerne Collection, Works of Art,” that was hand-lettered with the edition, “Odyssey #2.” The table’s top was covered with Grecian scenes inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and the supports were in the form of fluted column sections. According to the auction catalog, Herbert and Belle Lapidus purchased the table in 1967 from the New York studio. Phillip LaVerne told Mr. and Mrs. Lapidus that only one other free-form “Odyssey” table had been made and that “Odyssey #1” appropriately had gone to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

In an interview with ACN, Wade Terwilliger of Palm Beach Modern talked about the market for LaVerne: “People like the craftsmanship. There’s real artistry in the design, and the pieces are functional. You definitely want to have the original patina on them, and most of them do. Sometimes the finish gets rubbed out a little, especially if they have color applied. We often get the ‘Chan’ coffee table; the one we sold last fall was in excellent condition. We sold a pair of small end tables in January and those did particularly well.”

“At the auction house, we usually categorize things as ‘Hollywood Regency’ or ‘Traditional Modern’ – but LaVerne is completely by itself. Most of our consignments come out of New York or from Florida – it was popular down here, and we always carry LaVerne. I’ve seen big dining tables that are outstanding, also console tables and center hall tables. Pewter, brass, bronze – there are mixed metals on most of them. The pieces get noticed. Everyone recognizes quality, and there’s that artistic element that captures the viewer’s attention.”

Since the LaVernes were based in New York, examples were purchased for big city apartments and winter homes in Florida. A rare “Pharaoh” coffee table, circa 1965, sold at Sotheby’s last year for $23,750. But examples also emerge from estates around the country. Three pieces from a local collection were offered in July at a Case auction in Knoxville, Tenn., and a pair of coffee tables from a Mobile estate brought over $12,000 at Neal’s in New Orleans. On an episode of the Antiques Roadshow aired last year, furniture expert Leigh Keno examined a “Spring Festival” console in the Chan series that had turned up in Kansas City. He told the astonished woman that her husband had indeed made a good buy – his $600 investment might bring over $15,000 at auction.

Galleries featuring 20th Century Design seek out LaVerne for their clients. Fascinated by the patterned forms, some dealers have become specialists and are pursuing much-needed research on the furniture makers’ sources, techniques and production. The Cristina Grajales Gallery in New York had a cataloged exhibition of rare forms in the spring of 2008 titled “The Poetry of the Soul: Works of Philip and Kelvin LaVerne.”

Evan Lobel of Lobel Modern NYC is working with Kelvin LaVerne, now in his late 70s, to produce a comprehensive reference book and catalogue raisonne on LaVerne furniture, which should be available next year.