Paul Evans' Sculpture Front Series

An Interview with Dorsey Reading

Master welder, metalworker, and craftsman Dorsey Reading began working for Paul Evans right out of high school and stayed for 23 years. He became Evans’ most relied-upon employee and was responsible for executing many of his designs. We spoke with Reading about this cabinet, an important and rare example from the Sculpture Front series, and he provided unique insights into both the history and process of one of the most rare and expensive lines from Paul Evans’ studio. 

When was this piece made?

We made this cabinet between 1962 and 1964. It is one of the first three Sculpture Front cabinets we ever made, and quite possibly the very first.

What was America House and can you tell us more about their association with Paul Evans?

America House was a gallery on West 53rd St. where Paul’s work was first introduced to New York City in the early 1950s. It was originally founded as a cooperative shop by Aileen Osborn Webb in 1940 to feature American-made crafts and it had a bit of everything, all by craftspeople like Paul. This is where the first piece of Sculpture Front, a three-by-eight-foot screen, was shown in 1961, and from which all the Sculpture Fronts evolved.

Sculpture Front panel by Paul Evans featured in an American House catalog, c. 1965. Image courtesy of Dorsey Reading.

How do you know it is this early, and where in the production of Sculpture Front cabinets would you place this example?

There are a lot of little details. The ends of the cabinet itself are 1 1/2” thick and the top and bottom are ¾” thick. After they went into official production they were 1 1/2” thick all the way around. The hinges have six square bolts, whereas later ones had four hexagonal bolts so that they could be put on with a ratchet. The doors are cut by hand with a torch, but later ones were cut with a power hacksaw. The decorative forged elements are ⅜” square rod, but later pieces had rods of different sizes and shapes. All the metal put on the cabinet was hand-nailed, where later ones, especially during Directional, were applied with a nail gun. As a whole, the earlier pieces were far more labor intensive. Early ones took two weeks to make, where later ones took five days.

How did the Sculpture Front series come about?

Paul created the line, in part because the welder we used at the time gave us latitude to make more complicated work. Paul came out with a sketch and said “we’re going to make this big screen for America House”, and that led to the Sculpture Front line. That first screen stood in the window of America House. 

How did later examples evolve, and do you think the changes in fabrication affected the quality in any way?

It was a trade-off. Earlier ones were made better but later ones could be more refined.  

How many Sculpture Front pieces did the studio create and how long was the series in production?

The series started with that first screen at America House in 1961 and was in production until about 1980. Because the line was more costly and labor intensive, Sculpture Front works were all made-to-order and I'd say that all in all, between cabinets and screens, we only made about 50-60 total. 

Paul Evans, Dorsey Reading, and "Cool" applying patina to a sculpture front cabinet, c. 1966. Courtesy of Paul Evans.

How much did this cabinet cost at that time?

I was getting a dollar an hour so it cost about $80 of my time, at a dollar an hour, to make this. $900 was the cost to America House and they likely sold it for about two-and-a-half times that. When we got an order for one of these it was like heaven!

Which decorative elements on this example are most compelling and rare?

The forgings stand out as having the most character, especially the little boxes, which are unique to the piece. Some of the colors are really cool. The gold sections changed over time but the earlier work shows beautifully with patinated gold. White is also a difficult pigment to use and it adapted itself well to the textures we were trying to achieve. Red pigment was bright at first but if overheated it would turn black; the red on this one came out very well. There is no date because we tended to only sign the early ones. My “D” is on it though in addition to Paul’s name. These signatures were done in individual letters with a stainless steel welding rod. Later Evans signatures were in script with a regular welding rod.

I like this cabinet as an early, formative example and, more personally, I can see where I was at this point in time in my development as a craftsman.

Read more about Aileen Osborn Webb, founder of the American Craft Council, and her gallery, America House.

Handmade products should show the hand. Good line is not enough because that can be produced industrially. Furniture should have detail and richness.

Paul Evans

Paul Evans

Born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1931, Paul Evans exhibited talent for design at an early age. He studied woodworking in high school and briefly attended the Philadelphia Textile Institute. Evans was awarded the Aileen O. Webb Scholarship in 1950 and studied at the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen. He would continue his studies at Cranbrook in 1952 with a focus on metalwork. In 1953 he took a position as the metal craftsman at the living museum, Old Sturbridge Village. Feeling that his creativity was being stifled, Evans left the museum in 1955 to find a more stimulating environment. He opened a showroom with fellow designer Phillip Lloyd Powell and the two began a decade long collaboration. Evans’ experiments with welded and enameled sculpture in the early 1960s caught the eye of the Directional furniture company. Directional was looking for handmade furniture with distinctive character and Evans’ new American craft designs were a perfect fit. In 1971, Evans developed the brass and chrome Cityscape line for Directional marking a departure from his earlier sculptural works. In the 1980s, working with his son Keith, an electrical engineer, he continued to experiment with new materials and design increasing minimal forms with kinetic elements. Together, they formed Zoom, Inc. in 1983 and began a relationship with the Design Institute of America. In 1987, just one day after his retirement, Evans suffered his third heart attack and died.

Learn More

Auction Results Paul Evans