By Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Self-taught American furniture maker, Phillip Lloyd Powell was renowned for his sculptural designs and worked alongside fellow masters like Paul Evans and George Nakashima. Powell took great care in his craft and largely worked alone throughout his career. On June 4, Freeman’s will offer an exceptional four-poster double bed crafted by the designer. The Hot Bid’s Sheila Gibson Stoodley recently spoke with Freeman’s head of 20th Century Design, Tim Andreadis, to discuss this exquisite work and Powell’s career.
SGS: How prolific was Powell?
TA: It's estimated he produced upwards of a thousand pieces, but that might be a little liberal in retrospect. It might be 800 or so, and he did a lot of interior commissions, which would not have been freestanding furniture.
SGS: How many beds did Powell make?
TA: I've only seen two or three come to market, and I've seen one or two other headboards or footboards come up. I'd rate those as a five or a six. I'd rate this bed as a nine or a ten—it's fully carved, fully realized. I haven't actually seen a four-poster bed quite like this.
SGS: Was this double bed a commission, or did he build it on spec?
TA: He did it specifically for this client [the consigner], who commissioned it around 1960. It has the wonderful sculptural detail that you want to see with Powell pieces. It packs a lot of visual power. It's not a quiet piece. And it has a built-in bench at the footboard. The design is elegant and functional. You can sit on the bed as you dress and put on your shoes. The client loved the bed. The only reason she's selling is that she's downsizing and it won't fit in the new place. When we met, the bed was one of the first things she showed me. She's very proud of it and understands that it's a masterwork for Powell.
SGS: I understand that Powell and Paul Evans shared a studio space for about a decade, and that time would have included 1960. Was Evans involved with this bed commission at all?
TA: No, no. My understanding, coming from the client, is that she only worked with Powell. Some clients were drawn to one or the other [Phillip Lloyd Powell or Paul Evans]. A lot of clients were very comfortable with Phil. He was really personable. He was not necessarily a businessman. He was not looking to scale up. Paul Evans wanted to scale up and take his art to as many people as possible. Phil liked an intimate relationship with a client, where they could really build something together.
SGS: What was Powell's attitude toward wood? Was he the sort who liked to squirrel away choice pieces for the future, like his neighbor George Nakashima did?
TA: He did. He put away slabs that would be useful on a project. And black walnut [which he used for this bed] is very carveable, easy to work with. With somebody like Wharton Esherick, wood was more of a means to an end. Powell was more in the Nakashima camp, with woodworkers having a love affair with the material. I can't see him working with another type of material. I can't see his works cast in bronze.
SGS: I see that Powell uses an ebony butterfly join in the headboard. Did he get the idea from Nakashima?
TA: Butterfly joins are a way to keep wood from splitting further. In this backboard the join is much more decorative, as the two pieces of wood are separate. The join is meant to be a focal point and meant to create visual interest. As for Nakashima, there must be some influence there, but I don't know if he got it directly from George.
SGS: This is a four-poster bed. Does it actually function as one? Can you place a canopy on it?
TA: The client did not have a canopy on it. I don't think it was ever intended to have a canopy on it. The posts give a sense of verticality to it. I think the client wanted to create a sense of height, give it another dimension. The ebony caps on the posts highlight the sense of height and upward motion that you wouldn't otherwise have if there was just a headboard and a footboard. If you want a canopy on it, you could have one, but it would need to be modified.
SGS: Would modifying the bed to allow a canopy spoil its value?
TA: Not if it's done correctly. I think it would be beautiful either way. What you lose is you won't see the ebony caps on the top. The posts really draw your eye upward and you see the black detail, which echo the butterfly joins.
SGS: Where does Powell rank among the New Hope, Pennsylvania artisans?
TA: He's right up there, easily in the top three. George Nakashima, Paul Evans, and Phillip Lloyd Powell are the big three of the period. He has a sensual quality to his pieces that you don't necessarily get from the other guys. And I think a lot of people like the quietness of his work. This is definitely louder for a piece of Powell. They're not always loud, but they pack a lot of visual impact.
SGS: Why will this Powell bed stick in your memory?
TA: I've never seen another one like it. I've never seen another bed this expressive. It's a beautiful piece to see, to touch, to handle. Having met with the client and seen it in her home, where she had it for almost 60 years—that stays in my mind, how much it meant to her. It's hard not to have the enthusiasm be infectious. I'm excited to see where it ends up.
About the Author
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is an experienced writer and editor specializing in luxury, travel, art, antiques, collectibles, food, medicine, history, design and interiors. Gibson Stoodley is the founder of The Hot Bid, a blog showcasing intriguing and lots coming up at auction. To see more of Gibson Stoodley’s work, view her portfolio.
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