In 1943 George Nakashima, an MIT-trained architect of Japanese ancestry came to New Hope, Pennsylvania. He built a series of furniture workshops and over the course of the next five decades produced his signature “free edge” furniture, now sought the world over.
Nakashima was but one of hundreds (if not thousands) of artists, writers, intellectuals, actors and beatniks who flocked to Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties in the post-World War II period. Some of these visionaries worked in relative isolation, creating works with a singular vision, such as Wharton Esherick who created furniture and sculpture in Paoli, Pennsylvania, for a select group of clients. Other artists were heavily involved with the museums, galleries and art schools in Philadelphia, providing a source of inspiration, teaching outlet and means to exhibit their works.
Another furniture designer, Paul Evans, was born in Newtown, Pennsylvania and after studying at the George School as a boy and then later the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Old Sturbridge Village, returned to his native Bucks County and opened a furniture showroom in New Hope, with artist and collaborator Phillip Lloyd Powell. Works by Paul Evans encompass a diverse range of styles, from heavily-worked and patinated surfaces in steel, copper and bronze he preferred in the 1950s and 1960s, to the flat, polished surfaces in brass and chrome he made ubiquitous in tasteful households of the 1970s and 1980s through his partnership with the furniture maker and distributor, Directional.
Nakashima and Evans are among the most-sought names on the market for mid-century modern furniture and design. Their work brilliantly captures the grit, enthusiasm and independent-spirit of American idealism, the counter-culture and avant-garde that swirled around Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia region at this unique moment in history. Just as collectors sought out these studios in the 1950s through 1970s to engage these artists in commissioned-works, so do they return today to Philadelphia to purchase these works on the secondary market in Freeman’s bi-annual 20th century Design auctions, with works coming to market from area estates and collections.
The market for craft furniture from Pennsylvania is strongest for those works made during the mid-20th century period, but stems from a tradition of extraordinary craftsmen and furniture makers in the Philadelphia area since the early 1700s through the 19th and early 20th century. In 1901 the Rose Valley utopian community was founded, also making handcrafted furniture and wrought-ironworks. The work of metalsmith Samuel Yellin, who came to Philadelphia in 1915, can be seen throughout the region in iron gates, lanterns and architectural commissions.
The legacy of these artists is a Pennsylvania story rooted in the craft traditions and talent drawn to the region. The intimacy of their work to this landscape is perhaps why so many local clients found joy in working with them and living with their creations. It is this joy that Freeman’s seeks to convey in each new collection we bring to market, as the region’s oldest and most trusted auction house.