Cranbrook looks at Paul Evans, unheralded hero of midcentury design

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

When we think of midcentury modern furniture design, the august names that come to mind include Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Charles Nelson.

Left out of this pantheon until recently was Paul Evans, a metalworker who was one of the lights of the Philadelphia Studio Craft movement in the ’50s and ’60s, whose remarkably expressive designs look a bit like what you get when furniture collides with fine, avant-garde jewelry.

Walking through “Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism,” at the Cranbrook Art Museum through Oct. 12, you may be astonished that such daring, over-the-top beauty could ever be forgotten. Much of his work, particularly in the first half of Evans’ career, is highly sculptural and stunningly original.

Interested in bracingly creative furniture design? This is the show for you.

“When you think of furniture being done in the ’50s,” says museum director Greg Wittkopp, who wrote one of the essays in the impressive catalog that accompanies that show, “it was hand-crafted, midcentury modern that used a lot of wood in a sleek way. There might be metal attached to it,” he adds, “but none of the baroque ornamentation Evans incorporated into his designs.”

And “baroque” is the word for it.

One handsome piece is the remarkable “Cabinet, ca. 1962,” made of welded steel, wood and gold leaf. A stack of simple, gold drawers forms the left half, while the right features a complex mosaic of boxy niches, each framing sculptural metal elements, many tipped in gold leaf. The aesthetic is bold, simple and a little primitivist — and virtually impossible to take your eyes off of.

Interested in a contemporary approach to working with silver and other metals, Evans had studied at the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and then spent one year on a scholarship at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1952-53.

While his own medium was metal, at Cranbrook Evans fell under the spell of the great ceramicist Maia Grotell, whose revolutionary glazes, Wittkopp argues, found their way into the metalwork on the one-of-a-kind bars, credenzas, screens and bureaus Evans later designed.

“Evans was trained to work at a very small, intimate level,” Wittkopp says, “and then starts creating this furniture with pieces of jewelry that have been blown up and embedded in the surface.”

Evans founded a studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, with Phillip Lloyd Powell and later established his own workshop, producing one-of-a-kind pieces for Directional Furniture. Over time, Evans’ designs got sleeker and chillier, losing the exhilarating roughness of his early detailing. Wittkopp confesses he’s not a fan of Evans’ later work.

But the stuff up through about 1970 is wondrous.

If you go to the show, be sure to watch the accompanying video, which does a marvelous job of evoking the excitement of a group of craftsmen working together at the outer edge of design.

And while it’s a good ways off, those with a real yen for this sort of design won’t want to miss Cranbrook’s program on the last day of the exhibit, Oct. 12.

Starting at 4 p.m., Wittkopp will speak about Evans’ work and then lead a conversation in the galleries with Cranbrook’s current head of metalworking, Iris Eichenberg.

‘Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism’

Through Oct. 12

Cranbrook Art Museum

39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills

(248) 645-3323

Other art around town

Before it closes Monday, consider checking out “Hidden by the Underground” at River’s Edge Gallery (734-246-9880) in beautiful Wyandotte, featuring the sports paintings of Amy Chenier and self-portraits and Detroit scenes by, of all people, drummer extraordinaire Johnny Bee Badanjek, co-founder of the Rockets and the original percussionist with Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.