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Review by Caroline Cole
Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism

Constance Kimmerle, ed., with essays by Glenn Adamson, Edward S. Cooke Jr., Helen W. Drutt English, Constance Kimmerle, Robert Slifkin, and Gregory Wittkopp.  Paul Evans:  Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism.  Doylestown, Pa.:  James A. Michener Art Museum and Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2014.  216 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., catalogue, bibliography, index. $70.00. 

The career of craftsman and designer Paul Evans is a story of American twentieth-century ingenuity. A metalsmith whose career began by making silver bowls at Old Sturbridge Village, Evans evolved into a designer of chrome-plated cabinets and revolving rooms with mirrored walls. From independent studio craftsman to furniture designer on an industrial scale, Evans produced some of the most distinctive designs of the twentieth century by maintaining a dedication to experimentation.

Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism, published by the James A. Michener Art Museum, is the first comprehensive survey of the life and work of the artist, documenting four decades of Evans’s designs. The publication accompanies an exhibition by the same name that was on view at the Michener Art Museum, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, from March 1 to June 1, 2014, and later at Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, from June 21 through October 12, 2014. A formidable group of authors came together to produce the exhibition catalogue, which includes six essays, followed by sixty-two luminous catalogue plates. Constance Kimmerle, Curator of Collections at the Michener Museum, who organized the exhibition and edited the catalogue, provides a biographical overview, followed by topical essays exploring phases of the artist’s career and placing Evans in context with his peers. The various essays by the other contributors volley between Evans the studio craftsman and Evans the innovator of industrial trends—and this is part of the intrigue. Evans capably moved between the two, mixing metals, wood, and synthetic materials, with a fluidity that set him at the forefront of twentieth-century design. Above all, the exhibition catalogue illustrates Evans’s extraordinary capacity for innovation, as we see him manipulate materials to create his original aesthetic. As is the case with many multi-author catalogues, the individual authors often tread over the same ground in a slightly repetitive manner that might best have been addressed and eliminated in the editing process. Nonetheless, the publication relates a compelling story of creative renewal.

Paul Evans was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1931. His mother was an artist, and by his teenage years he had demonstrated an interest in handcrafts. A turned walnut vessel and a brass cigarette box with initials “PE,” both made in 1949 at the Quaker George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, are the first items listed in the catalogue (p. 121). In 1951 Evans was awarded the Aileen O. Webb Scholarship to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen (SAC), where he concentrated on metalwork. As Kimmerle relates in her introductory essay, Evans’s works in this early period “reveal his combination of classical American colonial designs with sleek streamlined forms” (p. 16). The next year, 1952, Evans enrolled in Cranbrook Academy of Art, with the aid of an Ellen S. Booth scholarship. He stayed there only one year before leaving the school to take on the role of metals craftsman at Old Sturbridge Village, reproducing colonial silver.

Although this venture lasted only two years, from 1953 to 1955, his work as an independent craftsman at the Village metals shop laid the groundwork for later transformation. His education and early professional experience are treated in depth by Gregory Wittkopp, Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, in his essay “Studio to Factory: Paul Evans’s Education as a Designer.” It was at Sturbridge, Wittkopp writes, that Evans “learned a business model that was closer to a factory than it was a fine arts studio” (p. 37). Evans received a modest salary and was compensated through sales of his works; while there he continued to submit silver designs for exhibitions.

Evans left Old Sturbridge Village in 1955 to establish a shop in Lambertville, New Jersey, and to partner with woodworker Richard Powell, who owned a showroom in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Connecting the artist to the craft tradition in Pennsylvania is of particular interest for the Michener Museum, located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The final essay of the catalogue by collector and craft specialist Helen W. Drutt English discusses what she describes as a postwar “craft renaissance” in Philadelphia during this period of Evans’s career (p. 109).

While sharing a showroom with Powell, Evans continued to make metalwork objects. The source of much detailed information on Evans’s early practice is Dorsey Reading, who began working with metals for Evans in 1959 and to whom the catalogue is dedicated. The “bread and butter,” as Kimmerle writes, for Evans’s early sales was a line of attractive walnut menorahs with brass detail, which were sold at Macy’s (cat. no. 15). At this time, Evans became a furniture maker. Some of the first successful collaborations between the two artists came with screens and tables using copper and steel “loops.”

Edward S. Cooke Jr., of Yale University, writes about early “loop” furniture in “Fashioning Craft/Crafting Fashion: The Ambitions of Paul Evans,” noting comparisons with contemporaries like Harry Bertoia. Cooke’s essay explores Evans’s work from a “shop-oriented point of view,” focusing on his process of design, production, and marketing over his career (p. 69). The evolution of Evans’s process of manufacture is a theme to which the catalogue often returns. As Cooke explains, “Evans’s transformation and expansion during the late 1950s can be charted through the growth and orientation of his workshop” (p. 59). Further experimentation with welded and patinated steel launched the partnership between Evans and Powell into commercial success with their “Forged-Front” cabinets of the early 1960s. Perhaps the most well-known of Evans’s signature looks, the multitextured, geometric surfaces of this furniture has the look of a metallic quilt.

In 1964 Evans began to supply designs to the Directional Furniture Company. Cooke marks this as a significant shift in the artist’s career, “one that followed a design and fashion paradigm rather than a craft one.” As he describes, Evans changed his focus from the “New York craft world to the national world of design” (p. 62). Early furniture for the firm included cabinets of welded aluminum, a new material for which he developed a process for use as surface decoration, and brightly colored interiors to contrast with the metal surface. Evans introduced the PE 100 Series in 1965. Referred to as the “Sculpted Bronze line,” the sandblasted look was achieved by spraying a light metallic coating on the substrate of chairs, table bases, or wall cabinets.

When it debuted in 1970, the Cityscape I (PE 200) line, made with glistening reflective surfaces, received much national attention. Glenn Adamson’s essay, “Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Paul Evans’s Cityscape Furniture,” focuses on this series made for Directional Furniture. Adamson, who is now director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York, situates this phase of Evans’s creative output within major design movements, including art deco, 1960s New York pop, and Italian postmodernism. The Cityscape line survives as Evans’s sleekest furniture, developed as an experiment in chromed steel. The result was a series of gleaming furniture, luxuriant with ultra-reflective surfaces. Adamson captures something of the artist’s playful penchant for experimentation, describing Evans’s choice to debut the line by arranging prototype furniture as an outdoor bedroom on his own patio.

The author compares Evans’s homage to urban architecture in the Citycape line to Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper bookcase from 1927 and to designs by Donald Deskey, and he also compares the use of chrome-plated surfaces to the streamlined look made popular in the 1930s. He writes that the line anticipates trends that would not become popular until a decade later, illustrating a 1981 chromium-plated cabinet by Memphis and Wendle Castle’s “Heard but Not Seen” Screen from 1989–1890. Adamson is careful to note, however, that Evans was, above all, “a process guy,” whose work was first and foremost a response to new materials and techniques (p. 98).

For readers whose interests lie beyond furniture connoisseurship, Robert Slifkin, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, contributes an art historical context for Paul Evans in “Paul Evans and the Legacy of Modern Welded Sculpture: Between Decoration and Expression.” Slifkin describes how Evans drew on stylistic trends of the late twentieth century, with comparisons to such 1930s sculptors as Julio González, Pablo Picasso, and Alexander Calder, who incorporated “nontraditional” materials into their artwork. The author relates Evans to sculptors of his own period, during a rise in sculpture in postwar America, seeing an affinity between him and Claire Falkenstein and Louise Nevelson, whose work “straddled the line between the sculptural and the decorative and utilitarian” (p. 80).

The 1980s saw the final phase of Paul Evans’s career, when he and his son Keith founded a company, Zoom, inc., to make electronic furniture. Though short-lived, the venture demonstrated the inventive spirit that drove Evans throughout his career. Like many twentieth-century stories, however, Evans’s ended with him overextended and in debt. After numerous campaigns of innovative, forward-looking design, he retired to Nantucket on March 6, 1987, and the very next day he suffered a heart attack and died.

The organizers have made a vigorous effort to make much of the content of the exhibition and catalogue available to a wide audience. The online exhibition hosted on the Michener Art Museum website includes all sixty-two works illustrated in the catalogue and a time line plotting the career of Paul Evans alongside twentieth-century historic milestones, as well as educational resources for teachers. These ancillary components will extend the life of this project and increase exposure of Paul Evans as an important part of the story of twentieth-century design.

Also included on the Michener’s exhibition website is a documentary on Evans, directed and coproduced by Todd Merrill, whose gallery offers work by Evans, and his wife, Lauren Merrill. The fifteen-minute video features many of the catalogue authors, as well as interviews with people who worked closely with the artist in various stages of his career. In it, a bit of insight is succinctly offered by a surprising source. The rock star Lenny Kravitz is a collector of Paul Evans’s work; his wall-mounted commode, a behemoth and ominous sculpted bronze piece, is pictured in the catalogue’s introductory essay. Kravitz muses of the designer, “His work is stunningly beautiful, stunningly ugly, stunningly tacky, stunningly sophisticated; it’s all of it, and that’s what makes a great artist.”[1] Whatever one’s feelings about Evans’s designs, it cannot be denied that the works are evocative, arresting, and almost mystical. The catalogue is a long-overdue volume exploring the remarkable creative process of an artist whose work figures boldly in the history of twentieth-century design.

Caroline Cole
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2014

Contents
  • [1]

    James A. Michener Art Museum, “Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism,” www.michenermuseum.org/catalogue/evans/documentary/ (accessed October 2, 2014).