Update: The Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet sold for $106,250.
What you see: A Paul Evans sculpture front wall-mounted cabinet, created in 1975. Rago Auctions estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.
Who was Paul Evans? He’s from Newtown, Pennsylvania. He was formally trained in jewelry-making, studying at Cranbrook [now known as the Cranbrook Educational Community], and then became a furniture maker. He had at least four studios that I know of, [including] a gallery he and Phillip Lloyd Powell owned together in the 1960s and 1970s. He died of a heart attack in 1987.
Where was Paul Evans in his career in 1975, when he made this sculpture front cabinet? Was he mostly a regional phenomenon? Yes and no. We get offered Evans pieces. It’s what we’re known for. One reason we get offered them is they were made here and never left. Paul Evans or Dorsey Reading [Evans’s studio manager] personally set them up in their homes. Evans was catering to educated, wealthy world travelers. Imagine how radical this cabinet was in the 1960s and 1970s.
Radical? Normal people were not buying this stuff. They were not buying benchmade pieces by radical guys working in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
This sculpture front wall-mounted cabinet is what I think of when I think of Paul Evans. But do we know how he hit upon this look? I can only guess, but people had credenzas. People needed pieces to hold silverware and tableware in the dining room, and needed pieces to hold stereos in the living room. It’s a very functional form. It’s a large piece of furniture with a lot of flat surfaces. Evans transformed them into works of art within a modern household.
But do we know how Paul Evans came to give his sculpture front cabinets this particular style and appearance? He was a jewelry designer first. Each box is designed like a little piece of jewelry, with small elements. Evans knew what it was basically going to look like. He’d do them [design the look of the sculpture front] all together and give them to Dorsey Reading to fabricate.
Do any of the motifs on Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets repeat, or is every cabinet entirely different-looking? He repeated these ideas, but no two are alike. If you look on the left-hand panel of the three on this cabinet–do you see the three crosshatches in orange?
Do the crosshatches kind of look like a tic-tac-toe grid? Yes. That’s unusual. The circle to the right of the tic-tac-toe–that’s always there. On the right-hand panel of the three, on the lower left, you’ll see another circle that looks like a sun. That’s an unusual variation, with color radiating from it. The clusters of gold nail heads–Evans liked that. There are always nail heads. If you look at the cluster of nail heads above the sun, and look to the right, there are stalactites. He always has those. There are four of them total on all three doors. The motifs tend to repeat, but he always plays with them.
How many sculpture front pieces did Paul Evans make? He made about 75 sculpture front pieces, and probably made them over eight or nine years. They’re labor-intensive, but all one-of-a-kind. And they were not a lot of money.
Not a lot of money? No. I’ve had half the sculpture front pieces made, and easily one-third of them had their original invoices. The most expensive was several thousand dollars. I recall invoices that say $1,000, $1,500.
So the original prices don’t reflect the labor that went into them. Not in my opinion.
The lot notes say this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet comes with digital copies of the original invoice and drawing. Does that indicate that the cabinet was commissioned? Yes and no. I think he might have had a small selection of these in his shop on Main Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and took orders from them. But no two are alike. I’ve had cabinets with two doors, three doors, four doors. There are similarities in their shape, and the types of designs [on the front], and the mined slate tops–those are from a local quarry.
Because the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet is not heavy enough on its own–it needs a slate top. Exactly. It takes two men to carry the top. And you can’t get any more of the slate. It’s quarried out. It’s gone. There’s a lot of character to this slate.
Why do you think Paul Evans chose the slate to top the sculpture front pieces? I don’t know why, but it’s a local element, and it’s beautiful. It’s not even a polished piece of stone. It has whorls and ridges in it. It’s not a flat surface. But it’s a beautiful accompaniment to the sculpture front.
Would Paul Evans have designed the sculpture front cabinet and handed the design off to Dorsey Reading to fabricate? It was more collaborative than that, from what I understand. As Dorsey was fabricating, Paul Evans might sketch something out and Dorsey would incorporate it. I’d say Paul Evans was the primary artist here, but Dorsey knew what he was doing.
So the sculpture front design was kind of liquid? Evans might add a motif while Reading was still making it? Yes, or a couple of motifs. It wasn’t like he sketched the whole thing out.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet was to make? That I can’t speak to. For Evans to come up with the design–easy. Dorsey, his skills are really good. But it’s all magic to me.
How much work does this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet represent? I think this took about a week. It didn’t take a day, or a month. This is thick, welded steel. The ones [cabinets] on a wall are two-and-a-half feet deep.
How heavy is this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet, and how did its installers make sure that it didn’t tear away from the wall? I would say it’s 1,000 pounds for a full-size [cabinet]. This is a little less, because it’s a three-door. They didn’t just go into the sheetrock or plaster. They were set right into the studs, because the studs are supporting the wall.
Oh! So it became part of the architecture. Yeah. When we move them, we don’t move them in one piece. We take the doors off. That’s three-quarters of the weight.
Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets were used when they were new, but do contemporary collectors use them, or do they tend to treat them like pure sculpture? I don’t see anyone using them as record cabinets. They store mostly dishes and silverware. But I think people who buy them understand they’re high art.
What condition is the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet in, and what condition issues do you tend to see with these pieces? I joke about it, but I’m serious–they’re indestructible. This is as solid as it looks. There can be some rust issues, and the colors can fade or oxidize, but this has good color. Look at the checkerboard on the left door. It has blue, yellow, red. Good color. And the kelp-like blue stuff below it, the red background is like dried blood. I think the color was more expressive half a century ago, but it has beautiful color.
What is the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet like in person? I think it’s photographed beautifully. It’s a powerful piece of Brutalist design. It’s massive, creative, and has a very strong presence to it.
This particular Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet was pictured in the book Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism. Does that matter at all to collectors? As I like to say, I can’t guarantee it helps, but I can guarantee it never hurts. This cabinet has great provenance, from its original owners, and even an original sketch. That’s plenty. On top of that, it was selected for the monograph of the artist. And the colors pop on this one.
Do collectors prefer the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets that are more colorful? Yes, definitely. The one I sold for the most had a lot of red and sky blue in it. It was very colorful.
Is this piece unusually colorful for a Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet? Usually you don’t get as many of them. Usually, it’s just reds and blues. The checkerboard [on the left door] and the sun on the right door give you the full rainbow. They’re on opposing sides of the piece, but they’re not placed at the same level. It’s a really lyrical piece. You’ve got a thousand-pound piece of steel here, yet there’s an elegance and a lightness. That’s genius–the genius of design.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I like the way the elements on the front are composed. It has a really good balance to them, a symmetry to them. The condition is excellent, and the colors are softer and add balance to the mass and scale of this piece. I would like it better if it was a four-door over a three-door, yes. But for this size, it’s perfect.
Images are courtesy of Rago.
David Rago has appeared on The Hot Bid several times before, speaking about a George Ohr vase, a super-tall Wally Bird, a record-setting unique ceramic tile by Frederick Hurten Rhead, a Paul Evans cabinet, and a René Lalique vase.
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