Shop Talk

The Icons of American Design Are Celebrated Anew by Todd Merrill

New York gallerist Todd Merrill has carved out a niche as a specialist in American studio furniture. The genre is the subject of his updated and expanded Modern Americana (Rizzoli). The new edition has added a section on women makers — among them, Mira Nakashima, daughter of George, whose Butterfly Gate is seen here in the Los Angeles home of designer Michael S. Smith (photo by Françios Halard). Above: A grouping of Merrill’s reissues of classic designs by Karl Springer, including a Zebrano Pullman sofa (photo courtesy Todd Merrill Studio).

American studio furniture of the 20th century has been something of an obsession for Todd Merrill, the New York dealer and founder of the gallery Todd Merrill Studio. His 2008 Rizzoli book, Modern Americana: Studio Furniture from High Craft to High Glam, which he edited with Julie Iovine, traced the history of this movement. The volume featured dramatic pieces handmade by their designers — who included such masters as Wharton Esherick, Wendell Castle and J.B. Blunk, to name a few — in materials like wood, bronze and plastic.

From the postwar years to the 1980s, designs of this sort were in fashion, but they had fallen out of favor by the 1990s, and 10 years later, Merrill was actually rescuing them from trash heaps and secondhand stores. By the early 2000s, Merrill could see that the market for studio furniture was reemerging, and the lack of documentation for their original period of popularity gave him the idea for his first book on the subject. In addition to “studio artisans” like Esherick, Castle and Blunk, Modern Americana included “designer craftsmen” like Vladimir Kagan, George Nakashima, Paul Evans and Phillip Lloyd Powell, who produced pieces in limited quantities; “custom designers” like Tommi Parzinger, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Edward Wormley and Karl Springer, who created show-stopping furniture, sometimes with major manufacturers; and “decorator-designers” like Samuel Marx, John Dickinson, William Haines, Arthur Elrod and Steve Chase, who strove for a total look in their interiors and relied on skilled craftspeople to make their custom furniture. “There were lots of books out there on European designers,” Merrill tells Introspective, “but there was not a book on American studio designers.” (He includes in this category all those who worked in the U.S., even though some of them, such as Kagan, Parzinger and Robsjohn-Gibbings, had emigrated to the country.)

Springer’s late-1980s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Merrill writes, received attention because it combined pieces from Africa and Asia with Art Deco–inspired furnishings and details. At right is a console Springer designed with a nod to Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. Photo © Peter Aaron/Esto
“Jim Henson’s New York City apartment, at the Sherry-Netherland building on Fifth Avenue,” Merrill writes of the Muppets’ creator’s pad, “was filled with commissioned works by studio makers including Sam Maloof and Judy Kensley McKie.” Photo by Thomas Hooper, courtesy of the Jim Henson Estate

The robustness of the market for American studio furniture is now firmly established. In 2017, a Paul Evans cabinet sold at auction for $382,000, and the movement’s pieces are sought by collectors and museums alike. Moreover, the rise of the Internet, and of sites like 1stdibs, has introduced the work to a new, very large audience. But Merrill felt that the story needed to be told more fully, so the expanded edition of Modern Americana — released, also by Rizzoli, last fall — which Merrill edited with Eve Kahn and Dallas Dunn, contains another 60 pages and 150 new photographs, with two additional sections. One, “The Women Makers,” includes Mira Nakashima (George’s daughter), Rosanne Somerson (the current president of the Rhode Island School of Design), Judy Kensley McKie, Wendy Maruyama and Kristina Madsen. “The first edition of the book ends around nineteen eighty,” Merrill explains, “and women had not really started making work until the mid-seventies, so that furniture had not yet come onto the secondary market.” However, he adds, these women “propelled studio makers into the twenty-first century. Their spirit was more communal, and they brought a fresh, new perspective.”

The other new section, “The Showrooms,” focuses on furniture showrooms like Directional, Baker and Grosfeld House and stores like Lord & Taylor, B. Altman and Bloomingdale’s, which played an important role in presenting the work of American studio designers — and in raising design awareness in general — from the 1930s through the 1980s. Shoppers could enter one of these and buy furniture by such designers as Kagan, Robsjohn-Gibbings and Philip and Kelvin Laverne, who are in the “Custom Designers” chapter.

The Icons of American Design are Celebrated Anew by Todd Merrill
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The Icons of American Design are Celebrated Anew by Todd Merrill

An expanded reissue of Modern Americana (Rizzoli) by New York gallerist Todd Merrill takes a deep dive into American studio furniture of the 20th century. The book includes an arrangement of a full suite of James Mont–designed silver-gilt pieces from the 1940s and ’50s that Merrill put together for Elle Decor. Photo courtesy Todd Merrill Studio

Merrill writes that J.B. Blunk filled the interior of his house and studio in Inverness, California, with “sculpture and handmade furniture. In the window, a small sculpture mimics the forms in Blunk’s well-known work Arch I (Hawk Arch).” Photo by Yoshihiro Makino Photography

A bedroom in a home in the California desert by Arthur Elrod’s interior decorating firm showcases “the designer’s penchant for whimsy,” Merrill writes. “It incorporates rich desert colors, bold textiles and playfully assorted furniture, reflected in mirrored panels overhead.” Photo by Alexandre Georges/AD © Conde Nast

A section added to the book examines the role department stores and furniture showrooms — like this one for Dunbar, designed by Edward Wormley in 1965 — played in presenting and promoting the work of American studio designers. Photo courtesy the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center of Parsons The New School for Design, Edward J. Wormley papers

From 1960 through the late 1980s, homeowners Rina and Norman Indictor commissioned an array of pieces — including the chairs, tables and bookcase seen here — from Paul Evans and Phillip Lloyd Powell for their Manhattan apartment. Photo courtesy © Rina and Norman Indictor

For his own Manhattan home, furniture designer Vladimir Kagan selected what Merrill describes as “some of his most popular designs”: among them, a Contour armchair, a mosaic-topped table and a library ladder. The metal sculpture is by Kagan’s father. Photograph excerpted from The Complete Kagan: Vladimir Kagan: A Lifetime of Avant-Garde Design by Vladimir Kagan, © 2004 Pointed Leaf Press, LLC

William Pahlmann “was the first designer to use model rooms as a merchandising technique,” Merrill writes in the section on department stores and showrooms. “He created this tented dining room at Lord & Taylor for the ‘Marbleized Fabric Show’ of January 1940.” Photo courtesy Hagley Museum & Library, William Pahlmann Papers

The L’Ami cocktail table, Blade Line desk, Cantilever chair, Let’s Make a Deal table lamp and a folding screen are among the pieces by Charles Hollis Jones adorning the Los Angeles home of actress Loretta Young. Photo by Jerry Sarapochiello.

Meanwhile, Merrill has had his eye on the future, as well. In 2008, he established the Studio Contemporary program, which represents established and emerging artists — among them, Molly Hatch, Sophie Coryndon and Timothy Horn — and such furniture makers as Marc Fish, who creates virtuoso pieces from stack-laminated wood veneers, and Markus Haase. He also works with Karl Springer Ltd. to reissue a selection of the late designer’s classic pieces from the 1970s and ’80s.

Many of these designers, Merrill points out, are working with new materials, like resins, that didn’t exist 25 years ago. They can also revive historical techniques, as in Coryndon’s elaborate, painstakingly gilded pieces. But the youngest ones are more influenced by graphic art and street art, as well as new technology — they don’t, Merrill notes, tend to look at historical precedent.

“There were lots of books out there on European designers,” Merrill tells Introspective, “but there was not a book on American studio designers.” Photo courtesy Todd Merrill Studio

As the supply of works by 20th-century masters becomes increasingly limited, contemporary pieces are building a new market. And as Merrill explains, they have another important advantage: They are customizable. Today’s collectors, he says, walk into the gallery and see a piece that they love but then order it in a custom size or configuration — “People want something just for them.”

Merrill has built his contemporary business to the point where he is preparing a book specifically on what he calls the “gray space between fine art and design.” Design, he says, has a universal appeal, and “makes tremendous sense to people. Design is everywhere now.”

 

Talking Points

Todd Merrill shares his thoughts on a few choice pieces.

“This is one of Evans’s best pieces, and although it is bold in feeling, its scale makes it easy to live with. Its front was painted by the African-American Evans studio craftsman Bobby Cool — who I met and loved.”

“Retro-Deco nineteen seventies chic — comfortable and the best sofa to float in a room”

“Milo Baughman swivel chairs are modern classics — and will remain so, as they are comfortable and make for easy conversation with their swivel-and-tilt bases.”

“One of the early makers of ‘art furniture,’ Castle is one of my personal favorites. This small console does it all: It’s the perfect size, and functional but pure sculpture at the same time, with carved whimsy and a sophisticated use of wood in its burl top.”

“Made by Robsjohn-Gibbings for a Toronto penthouse by Phillip Johnson on which the furniture designer collaborated, this piece has an elegant combination of bronze and satinwood and perfect size and proportion. The best of the best of American twentieth-century custom furniture.”

“This piece features a mauve painted interior and smoky mirror framed in silver leaf, in completely original condition and signed with a branded mark. From Mont’s best period, it has a bit of old Hollywood glamour meets Park Avenue.”

 

 

“Markus is a unique artist who is a master of all materials — a virtuoso in stone or wood and metal. This lighting series combines LED light with hand-cast bronze inset with white onyx. The result is ethereal light cast by stone. I don’t know of any other artist working in this way. It’s all done by hand, from carving to casting to the stone being set like gemstones — high craft and high glam.”

 

“We are now partnering with Karl Springer Ltd. to reissue some of his classic designs, like the Free Form table. The craftsmanship is better than that of the originals. In bronze, it’s spectacular. This line bridges the vintage and the contemporary.”

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