The Metamorphosis Console
Paul Donzella illuminates an early masterwork by American artist-makers Philip and Kelvin LaVerne
“This piece is one of the best examples of the LaVernes’ output to ever hit the secondary market,” New York gallerist Paul Donzella explains when asked about the Metamorphosis Console by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne (c. mid-1960s), a one-of-a-kind masterwork that Donzella has acquired directly from the original owner. Given the fastidiously crafted, ultra-high-end character of the father-and-son duo’s production throughout the second half of the 20th century, such an accolade from a LaVerne expert like Donzella certifies that this is a rare gem among gems.
The LaVernes were pioneers in the creation of, in their words, “functional art” and “sculptural functionalism”—what today we call collectible design. The father, Philip (1907-1987), trained under Ashcan School painter and etcher John Sloan, while the son, Kelvin (b. 1937), studied metal sculpting and furniture design at Parsons School of Design. Teaming up in the mid-1950s, they began experimenting with metals and over several years developed their own arduous and exacting processes for bronze casting, welding, etching, and patinating—which famously included burying their objects in a proprietary soil mixture for six weeks!
From the mid-1960s toward the end of the century, the LaVernes’ New York City atelier and showroom attracted an elite clientele who relished the singular artistry of the duo’s one-offs and limited-editions. Spanning furniture, sculpture, and architectural elements, the LaVernes’ most coveted bronze works featured intricately acid-etched motifs drawn from classical and Asian decorative arts as well as the organic, abstract forms of the modernist movement. Through intense patination and the composed application of secondary metals like pewter, the LaVernes achieved extraordinary surface effects that appear to modulate in response to varying sightlines and lighting conditions.
Produced as a one-of-a-kind for a New York patron in the mid-1960s, the Metamorphosis Console is an early example of the excellence that the LaVernes would achieve over the course of their career, encapsulating all of the qualities most cherished in their oeuvre. Confidently straddling the line between art and design, this sizable biomorphic, sculpted and welded bronze table is embellished with a lavishly mottled finish on top and striking acid-etched striations around the body. The piece can be used as a console as-is or outfitted with a glass top to become a dining table—or it can be appreciated as pure sculpture.
“One thing that makes this piece especially remarkable is that the undulating, pierced form strongly references modern art while fully retaining its functionality as a design object,” Donzella says. “This relatively early work from the LaVernes incorporates a number of their signature production techniques. In addition to the beautifully acid-etched incisions, the bronze sheets have been masterfully hand-shaped and manipulated, and the riveted seams have been polished down so as to be nearly invisible. This piece also showcases one of my favorite techniques used by the LaVernes—the torching and grinding of the top surface to achieve a rich visual texture.”
While Philip and Kelvin LaVerne have always attracted aficionados, the underdeveloped market for their work looks poised to skyrocket. LaVerne lots at auction over the last few years have been conspicuously overperforming their estimates, like the Bather’s Sideboard (c. 1968) that sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2019 for $156,250, nearly twice the high estimate, and the Eternal Forest Center Table (c. 1960) that sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2021 for $94,500, nearly four times the high estimate.
“I love how the spirit of their work ranges from classical and decorative to contemporary and modern, sometimes brutalist as well,” Donzella says of the historical studio's appeal to today’s cosmopolitan collectors. “The LaVernes reference fine art in intriguing, sophisticated ways, often creating homages to iconic artists such as Rodin, Picasso, Brancusi, Giacometti, even Duke Ellington. I think their work resonates with contemporary collectors because the strong forms and rich bronze finishes are at once subtle and powerful. There's an openness to it, as a study in minimalism and sublime abstraction.”
The LaVernes’ approach to the creation of “functional art” was ahead of its time, arguably resonating more with the current boundary-busting, cross-disciplinary creative zeitgeist than with the modernist era in which it was created. And collectorship is rising. Philip LaVerne may have summed up his family's work best in a 1960s advertisement: “It’s not just functional and not just art, it’s an investment.” ◆
You can find the LaVernes’ Metamorphosis Console represented by Donzella Ltd. in the Design Miami/ Shop here.