Powell & Evans – The Craft Factory

Phillip Powell and Paul Evans formed an unlikely team, working in an unlikely locale out of an unlikely workshop and driven by unlikely motives. How many unlikely’s was that? Answer: too damn many not to be astounded. Yet, such was the topsy-turvey logic that somehow worked magic during the freewheeling 1960s and 70s. The unlikely locale was New Hope, Pennsylvania, though having George Nakashima as a nearby neighbor certainly didn’t hurt. But, whereas Nakashima was reflecting bucolic tranqulity in his works, the Powell and Evans team produced edgy, brutalist-tinged designs that one would more naturally expect to emerge from the gritty, industrial graveyards at the smokey outskirts of New York City, not a quaint rural hamlet. The unlikely pairing of motives were Powell’s carefree artistic aims coupled with Evan’s wheeling-dealing entrepreneurship, which led to the formation of what has been described as the ‘craft factory.’ Though, it must be conceded that Powell did have a certain knack for success, whether pursued wittingly or not. Sometime around the age of 26, just after WWII, Powell moved to New Hope and, though he had a degree in engineering from Drexel, opted instead to restore antiques and build furniture, primarily from rejected wood (mostly wood rejected by Nakashima!). He had had a taste of the conventional furniture business when he had contracted to fulfill an order from Macy’s for 1000 children’s footstools, but that experience had soured him permanently on mass production. Yet, ironically, his little shop, which sold a mix of contemporary furniture (mostly from Herman Miller & Knoll), restored antiques, and Powell’s own very unique one-off pieces, turned out to be something of a commercial triumph. And, this prosperity afforded him the luxury of devoting more serious time to designing and crafting his own pieces.

Around 1951, Paul Evans happened into Powell’s shop. Evans was 12 years Powell’s junior, but had already begun to establish himself in the art world, initially as a silversmith. Some years earlier, his work had caught the eye of wealthy patron Aileen Vanderbilt Webb who at first secured him a scholarship to Cranbrook Academy (a hotspot for designers like Charles & Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, etc.)). However, before completing his degree, Evans left the school to take a position as a silversmith at the working history museum in Sturbridge Village, Mass., also funded by Vanderbilt Webb, where he produced notable prize-winning works. However, by 1951, he decided to re-enrolled at a different school, the School for American Craftsmen in Rochester, New York, and it was along the way driving to this new school that Evans chanced to pass through New Hope and wander into Powell’s shop. He was bowled over by Powell’s audacious designs and, true to his deal-making nature, negotiated placing his own pieces in Powell’s shop. The two immediately hit it off, and a friendship and business/artistic partnership was born. Evans’ pit-stop in New Haven turned into a permanent residency, and his school plans again perished prematurely.

Powell and Evans each had a similar approach to their designs, though Powell’s medium was wood while Evans, metal. Powell didn’t coerce the wood to conform to his preconceived design, but rather allowed the natural contour and grain of the wood to dictate the ultimate form. Moreover, he amplified these natural features of the wood, rather than mute or tame them. In a similar fashion, Evans made no attempt to hide or smooth out his metalwork, but instead accentuated the unfinished, roughhewn aspects, allowing the full breadth of the raging, tempestuous energy of the welding and hammering and twisting and cutting of metal come shining though. Though Evans eschewed the label of ‘brutalism,’ his (early) work certainly evoked a raw, chaotic fury of snaggy, jagged forms, texturally like a post-apocalytpic smoking nuclear wreck-heap. On the other hand, the gestalt view of his pieces doesn’t strike one as angry, but quite the opposite: an elementary innocence of morphological expression, with lines, shapes, and figures that look like the sillhouette of a toddler’s dreamscape.

Powell encouraged Evans to branch out and attempt a wider range of metalwork, including larger pieces, and this led to a collaboration on joint works of walnut & steel. –Here’s a funny thing, though: The collaboration also involved a third person, a young local machinist Dorsey Reading, who performed the actual metalwork that Evans only directed. Evans, it turns out, had some psychological hangups about getting his hands dirty, and such squeamishness made it impossible to touch the stuff personally. Nevertheless, in yet another unlikely twist, the arrangment worked out beautifully.

After a few years of perfecting their design/working process and techniques, Powell & Evans finally received a series of breaks that propelled them to fame. First was Bud Mesberg’s taking an interest in their work and commissioning 6 coffee tables for his influential New York store, Directional (which also carried works by Vladimir Kagan, Paul McCobb, and Kip Stewart). Those six sold in less than a week, and thus kicked off a long relationship with Directional. Then, in 1961 Powell & Evans had a two-man show at America House (another Vanderbilt-Webb funded entity), which received a great deal of applause from the design world and rave reviews by critics. After their pieces started appearing in national magazines, like Interior Design, they attracted demand from discerning collectors and celebrities, including (oddly) Sheri Lewis (yes, of Lamb Chop the puppet fame) who orded more than 30 pieces from them. — Powell & Evans were in their heyday, combining double-barrel charm with artistic mastery. No one was safe.

However, the magic of paradoxes that somehow made sense and harmony from all those ‘unlikely’s’ of the early days gradually came to unravel. Powell was less interested in cash and more in bespoke art and travel. His preferential MO was working a concentrated burst of intense artistic creation on one-off pieces to suit his specific clients, followed by a leisurely globe trot, returning only to work long enough to recharge his bank account before taking off again. Evans the entrepreneur, on the other hand, saw more lucrative opportunities in producing collections for Directional, rather than working with individual clients, and so evolved his techniques (adapting some from the shipbuilding industry) in the direction of large-scale production, eventually opening a 30,000 sq/ft facility in Plumsteadville, PA. — By the 1970s, this progression towards large-scale production led to a very different look, one that would become signature for him: the sleek, shiny Cityscape collection, which beautifully captured the glam and glitz of the disco era. At the height of production, Evans was delivering nearly 400 pieces a week to New York City.

In 1981, Evans dissolved his relationship with Directional and opened his own large, computerized and very expensive showroom in NYC, displaying even more labor-intensive pieces involving motorized components. However, the showroom and production facility, together with changing tastes and diminishing sales, proved to be more debt than he could handle. By 1987, at 56, he was forced to hang up his hat and retire. On the very day of his retirement, March 6, he borrowed his son’s car and drove with his second wife to their Nantucket vacation home. The next morning, March 7, having a cup of coffee on the lawn, he died of a heart attack. The ghost of Paul Evans would no doubt have been thrilled that his death instantly galvanized the market for his work, transforming them into hotly sought-after collector’s pieces. Clearly, a life of retirement, without the thrill of turning a dollar and creating art, was just not worth the bother to Evans.

Powell, meanwhile, lived the leisurely life to the ripe old age of 88, continuing intermittently to make individual pieces for individual clients and traveling as much as possible to Europe, finding enormous amusement at his former works’ fetching 10 to 20 times their original prices at auctions. As he grew older, Powell spent the bulk of his remaining artistic energies, however, on his own home (which he called ‘studio tower’), and not on commercial endeavors, enjoying exclusivel for himself his own handiwork.

Hard to say who got the last laugh in the odd couple pairing of Evans & Powell. But, suffice to say their strange tale and wonderful designs.

 

*Thanks to Todd Merrill’s book Modern Americana for biographical background and pictures; thanks to 1stDibs.com for pictures.

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