Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Life After Fontana Arte: Prof. Erwin Walter Burger

Those interested in Italian Mid Century Design in glass undoubtably think of Fontana Arte.

The company as a whole aside, I'd like to introduce you to one of their most important, but relatively unknown, artisans.

In 1928, after years working for important glass firms in his native country, German-born Erwin Walter Burger settled in Italy.  Already a master engraver, he worked for several years for the Muranese firm of  Cappellin & C- then moving to Milan to become chief engraver for the newly established firm Fontana Arte (the Gio Ponti-founded artistic wing of Luigi Fontana's plate glass company Luigi Fontana & C.).

Burger was responsible for the creating the designs thought up by Pietro Chiesa (whose own company had merged with Fontana Arte in 1933) & Giacomo Manzu, though also from the beginning designed his own works (though these were never marked as his own design).  When Pietro Chiesa left Fontana Arte in 1945, Burger left to found his own company: Laboratorio Erwin Burger.

Burger worked with a small team of artisans producing a wide range of their own glass works, but also collaborated with other firms.  In 1957 Burger he took on his 20-year old son Willi (a painter) as co-designer.

Prof. Burger died in 1982.  Always the versatile artist, his son Willi is now world-renown classical harmonica musician.

The most importants works of Burger fall into two camps:  sculptures & engraved panels.

AVAILABLE works by Burger at Amarcord Fine Decorative Arts






Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Two great books for your Library

Feeling gifty this holiday season?

If you're into flowers....and design, here's a couple books to pick up.

A recent release:

Preston Bailey's Celebrations

And and old favorite of mine (if you can find a copy)..by Warwick Orme of Australia, titled Floranova.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Aluminum: From Riches to Rags

Did you know in the late 19th Century Aluminum was more valuable than gold?  And it was only really discovered in 1825?   You can even find early Victorian jewelry with aluminum & gold used together.

Of course, as time went on (and more discoveries of deposits)- it was then as valuable as silver, then...not a long time after that, as valuable as...aluminum.

And though Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth crust, you'll never find it a a pure element-(the image is not a chunk of natural aluminum, rather it is an alloyed by-product from a smelting plant)- the metal is too reactive, but it is found in bauxite and hundreds of other minerals and ores- which are mined & smelted.

What makes aluminum interesting is that when exposed to air it forms a thin surface layer of aluminum oxide (you know- the white stuff that forms when you wash your aluminum pots)...

The forming of that layer made aluminum impossible to weld (until later alloys allowed for that)....but that didn't stop people from riveting aluminum:

You'll notice Warren McArthur's works from the 40's & 50's have those lovely decorative rings- which held the tubes together without having to worry about welding:

The aluminum oxide layer allows the metal to be COLORED (like titanium).....which is called anodizing....not painted, actually stained through an electrical process.

I could go on about this now lowly metal.....but I won't.

Respect aluminum- it's not as valuable as it once was....but it's a worker.  Try living without it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pietra Dura & the Good Old Days

These days there is always an easier & quicker way to do things- technology has advanced and the 'old ways' of hand crafting have been forgotten in many arts.

One such art is the hand-made 'Pietra Dura' (i.e, stone marquetry) panels created from the 16th Century and on in Italy (Rome initially, then perfected in Florence thanks to the Medici family....then ultimately working its way to Agra in India).  These days the art of Pietra Dura continues, but is limited to just a few producers due to the cheaper water-jet cut CAD-designed pieces produced by any marble shop.   This saddens me.

Let's look back...

This amazing piece was done the 'old way'.

1) The  visible marble is actually about 3mm thick- these were cut from the slabs using rudimentary cutting wheels

2) the design was drawn out on the main sheet of marble (typically black, but also white, etc...), then the design cut out (using hand held wires coated repeatedly with abrasive powders...laborious and slow work)

3) colored stones of the same dimension were then cut to replace the voids- cutting the edges at a slight angle so the face of the colored stone was flush with the front but could not fall through.

4) when the colored stones were all in, plaster was pasted thinly on the back to set the design- then the whole slab backed with slate.

table top

trompe l'oeil table top

These days even the hand-made pieces by Ugolini Firenze use mechanical cutters & shapers....so nobody does it the hard way anymore.

The last 'atelier' that made pietra duras in the true sense was Montici Marbles- the small shop created by Richard Allman Blow in the 1940's.

It took a fabulously wealthy American (from a prominent family) to invest his own fortune buy a house in Santa Margherita a Montici (in Florence) and revive this art by hiring the best people still left in Florence still capable, including the head of the Optificio delle Pietre Dure (the institute that housed a museum and restoration center for this art).  He even bought surplus marble stock from the Medici family inventory that had been used centuries earlier to repair parts of the Medici Chapel.

Mr. Blow would sketch the designs- usually Modernist designs, not traditional...and his skilled work force (just several people) would do the work.  His shop produced fewer than 1500 works, and ended in 1992 with his death.  Here is what he achieved.

'Hand'- available for sale

Thursday, November 4, 2010

At Auction

Today my 5 favorite picks at auction this month!

Ruth Duckworth Porcelain Sculpture at Cowan's Nov 6th

Line Vautrin Mirror at Millea Brothers Nov 20th

Pair Victorian Mirrors at Millea Brothers Nov 20th

Dube for Fontana Arte Glass Charger at Casa D'aste Della Rocca Nov 16th

Abstract Sculpture at Millea Brothers Nov 20th

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jizai Okimono: The Japanese Art of Articulated Iron Animal Figures

This lovely 5 3/4" articulated copper & bronze Mantis (at the Walters in Baltimore) is the work of an anonymous metalworker in 19th Century Japan (or Edo period).

This is the Art of Jizai Okimono- an art that emerged after the Samurai class was outlawed in the mid 1870's.  The Myochin armorers made the battle clothing for the samurai, and when the class was abolished they needed to put their skills to other uses- this being the most artistic.

Most pieces are forged iron, but also bronze, copper & ivory- and most tend to be small insects & animals, sometimes very large Dragon figures.

Here's a lovely snake I was outbid on a few months back- it went for $17,500: Snake

Recently the Tokyo National Museum did a show on this particular art form- worth a look, as a collection like this exists nowhere: Collection.

If you're interested in this general area, but can't find (or afford) the Japanese originals- there are other options.   In the mid 20th Century some makers in Spain started making some animals figures of very high quality in cast silver- I have a Crayfish available for sale on my website....and have recently sold a crab.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Practical Luxury: The Gentleman's Knife

In the antiques biz the need for a knife is constant (cutting open boxes, opening envelopes, cutting string, peeling veneers...quite endless)- so I clearly carry one.

You, reader- what do you carry?  Probably nothing, right...?  Time to reconsider.  Knives are not simply objects for the kitchen, or for Rambo- they can be works of art, but with great function.

Over 10 years ago I bought my first Chris Reeve Sebenza-and I am now a devoted follower of Mr. Reeve's titanium folding knives.

In the 'Gentleman's Knife' category I would choose these two- one for evening, one for day.

The Mnandi ($350-$650) - not quite 6 1/2" total length- of titanium and choices of veneer- this is my top choice for carrying while suited up.  While I prefer simple veneers like blackwood or rosewood- the Mammoth Ivory Bark version is stunning (IF you can find one...or wait a year if ordered custom).

The Small Sebenza ($330-850)- not quite 7" total length, also of titanium.  This one is a bit larger overall than the Mnandi, and is my daytime knife...very utilitarian!

Most owners of Chris Reeve knives collect them...and the more unusual and rarer model will set you back- but some are beauties, like these.

You can get as fancy as you want- but there is a restrained simplicity even in the elaborate models of Sebenzas & Mnandis, which is why I prefer them.

Like any luxury item- find the right thing for your lifestyle, research it, and BUY THE BEST YOU CAN AFFORD- and you'll never be disappointed,  promise.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The National Gallery of Art in DC hosts Archimboldo: Nature and Fantasy running through January 9, 2011.

Giuseppe Archimboldo can you believe it?  This is the 16th Century!!! and he's painting profiles of people using fruits and vegetables as elements in his design...

or chicken wings...

As much fantasy as Piero Fornasetti offered us in the 1950's-60's.......

he also recognized the master, no?