Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008)
Celebrated American furniture maker and designer Phillip Lloyd Powell was born in Germantown, PA in 1919. Powell is best known for his innovative and hands-on approach to the production of studio furniture that disregarded industrial mass production methods in favor of creating limited runs of meticulously detailed, hand-carved pieces.
A self-taught natural at the craft of woodworking, Phillip Lloyd Powell began creating custom furniture for friends and family as a teenager. Looking to further develop his craft, he enrolled at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) in 1939 to study mechanical engineering. His academic career was cut short in 1940 when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. During his service as a meteorologist, stationed in Great Britain, Powell dreamed of returning home and settling in the quiet, river town of New Hope; a dream that came to fruition in 1947 when he purchased an acre of land in this Bucks County artists’ community. Powell built his own home and earned a living selling works by noted mid-century designers such as Herman Miller and Isamu Noguchi.
At the urging of his friend George Nakashima, already an established studio furniture maker, Powell began designing his own studio furniture. He established a showroom in the heart of New Hope in 1953, open only by appointment and on Saturday evenings. In 1955, he began sharing his studio with Paul Evans, a metalsmith and fellow designer of sculptural, mid-century modern furniture. The two artists shared a creative space until 1966, growing their businesses and collaborating on select furniture designs. In addition to his detailed woodworking, Powell also created pieces in stone, metal and slate.
Though Powell began his work in the middle of the 20th century, his designs stand apart from the archetypal clean, sharp lines of many other mid-century makers. Along with his fellow Delaware Valley Modernists, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, he sought to elevate the natural form of wood and preferred organic curves and materials. A classic example of this is the singular, sculpted fireplace now on permanent exhibition at the Michener Museum of Art in nearby Doylestown, PA.
Powell’s work was also inspired by his love of world travel, as seen in The Powell Door, the intricately carved and brightly painted pine door that now stands as the permanent entryway to the James A. Michener Museum of Art’s Martin Wing. The Powell Door, among other works from this time, shows the clear influence the elaborately carvings and colors of India, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Morocco had on Powell.
In 1957, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts presented the exhibition “Furniture by Craftsmen” which included a collaborative Phil Powell and Paul Evans metal sculpture-front chest, as well as works by other prominent makers of the Studio Furniture Movement such as Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. Today, examples of Powell’s works can be seen at the Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, PA.
Rago was the first auction house to feature Powell’s work in the context of important, organic Delaware Valley design. Phil Powell was a friend of the auction house who often attended its sales, most notably on the day in 2009 when Rago sold the fireplace surround to the Michener Museum, setting the current auction record for Powell’s work. (The Michener also purchased The Powell Door from Rago.)
Owing to the intricacies of his designs and his preference to work alone, Powell is estimated to have produced less than 1,000 pieces before his death in 2008. This limited production has helped to create a robust and competitive secondary market for his works.