Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008), Door and Surround, 1967, Stacked carved softwoods, polychromed, James A. Michener Art Museum, Museum Purchase with Funds provided by Sharon B. and Sydney F. Martin.

“Inspiration comes at very strange times. Out of the blue.” Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008)

About the Artwork

Phillip Lloyd Powell’s elaborately carved polychrome door for his earliest New Hope residence was an uncommissioned piece. As such, it embodies the designer-craftsman’s pure creative impulses as well as inspiration from the carvings and decorative elements he discovered during his travels in Spain in the 1960s.

At the time of the Michener Art Museum’s purchase of the door in 2009, Powell’s deep chip-carving technique was evident in the work’s multilayered bands of geometric carvings, but layers of blue and green latex overpainting had compromised its original crisp carving. A hint of a bright reddish-orange underlayer of paint was visible in several areas where the surface paint had abraded. Former workshop employees, New Hope residents, and Powell family members remembered the door on Powell’s house as being originally painted in shades of red and reddish orange, with carvings in different colors. It reflects Powell’s original plan, to make a door that “was to be all spontaneous using nails, paint, unsanded wood with naïve chisel decorations”.

When the Michener first acquired The Powell Door, it required conservation. For several months, furniture conservator Behrooz Salimnejad worked with a cross-sectional microscopic analysis of the door’s paint layers. Taking paint samples from different areas of the door, Salimnejad analyzed them under a microscope with visible and UV lights. The microscopy revealed that the original finish consisted of five shades of vermilion, bright red, reddish orange, orange, and warm yellow in distinct carved areas of the door. The analysis also determined that the original paint had an oil binder, while there were two latex layers above the original layer: an earlier dark green and the latest dark blue. In addition to restoring areas of wood loss, Salimnejad carefully removed the top layers of latex paint to reveal the door’s original paint colors and crisp carvings.

The Michener Art Museum acquired Powell’s elaborately carved and painted pine door through a Rago Auction in 2009, with funds provided by Sharon B. and Sydney F. Martin. The door has become one of the permanent entrances to the Museum’s Martin Wing, and the Paton | Smith | Della Penna-Fernberger Galleries.

Looking Questions

  • What do you see? Describe the shape, color, and texture of The Powell Door.
  • Name all the textures you see in this image. What do these textures remind you of?
  • Describe the layers of arches visible in this work. How do the colored wooden arches contrast with the rectangular opening?
  • What kinds of colors did Powell use in his door? What do the colors suggest?
  • Describe the shape of the door. Do you know of any other art forms that are also shaped like this?
  • When the Museum acquired this door, it required extensive conservation. It was dark blue-green-black, and suffered damage from insects and exposure to the elements. Look carefully for evidence of the work of the conservator. What do you see?
  • Where is the doorknob? Why do you think the artist put the doorknob where he did?
  • How is this door different from a door you may have at home? From other doors you have seen?
  • Where do you think the artist got his ideas for this doorway? What do you see that makes you say that?
  • A doorway is defined as an entrance through which you enter or leave a room or building. How do you think you would feel if you passed through this doorway, to enter into another room or another place?
  • What do you feel is the most important part of this artwork? Why?
  • If you could tell a story about what you found when you walked through this door, what would it be?

About the Artist

Phillip Lloyd Powell was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1919. His interest in building began when he was a teenager, when he made custom furniture for family and friends. He attended the Drexel Institute of Technology for engineering in Philadelphia at age twenty. He was drafted into the military during World War II, and was trained in meteorology at the University of Chicago to help him with his work with the Army Air Corps in Britain. He was in England for almost five years, and his brush with theater and the arts there influenced him greatly. He was employed as both a meteorologist and an engineer prior to moving to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and initiating his life as an artist in 1947. He said: “When I originally came to New Hope, having run screaming from office or business life, I was looking for a quiet unstressful life, really becoming a hermit, but from the moment I started building my first house on the highway, I was inundated with people and eventually business and I went with the flow.”

Inspired by woodworking artists George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, Powell began developing his own furniture designs in the early fifties, which he sold from his New Hope shop. By 1953, he had moved his showroom to Mechanic Street, where he would create a line of lamps as well as slate-topped tables and chairs. His shop was open by appointment and from 8 p.m. until midnight every Saturday, when the Bucks County Playhouse theater crowd was wandering about town. When designer-craftsman Paul Evans moved to New Hope in 1955, Powell and Evans opened a joint showroom and began collaborating on screens, tables, and cabinets. They worked together for ten years.

According to collector and auctioneer David Rago, Phillip Lloyd Powell personified the spirit of Bucks County woodworking: “Powell designed with the mind of an engineer and the interpretative eye of an artist.” His organic, textural furniture was painstakingly hand carved from gleaming woods. It recalls forms from the natural world. He considered himself one of the first artists to explore the surface of wood, reintroducing the importance of its natural texture. He followed the grain out of respect for its natural forms. Powell favored walnut because of its malleability, carving the wood as a sculptor carves stone. The basic shapes for his works were created with a saw, and then the rest was painstakingly and passionately created with smaller tools by hand. He intertwined walnut with other woods, and incorporated complementary stones and metals into his designs. His work was also marked by the presence of objects he found in his travels, including deer antlers, silver bangles, and oil paintings. His wooden cabinetry often opened to reveal interiors lined with silver leaf and fine fabrics.

Powell was inspired by the diverse artistic community in New Hope. He felt at home among the artists and musicians who lived there in the 1950’s, living rather unconventional lifestyles. He was an avid bicyclist who wore wild colored scarves, yellow rubber sandals, and funny hats. He read New Yorker magazine, and loved the lyrics of Cole Porter and the music of Willie Nelson. At Sneddon’s luncheonette in Lambertville, Powell would always say, “I’ll have the regular,” which was soft poached eggs with Heinz ketchup, well-done cottage fries, and rye bread “with enough to take home and feed the birds”. He valued close friendships, and the relationships he developed with collectors over the years. He was a powerful presence in the New Hope area, and was well loved and respected by the community.

There are many museums and galleries that have exhibited Phillip Lloyd Powell’s artwork. These include not only the James A. Michener Art Museum, but also the Museum of Contemporary Crafts and the America House in New York, the David Rago Studios in Lambertville, New Jersey, and the 1967 and 1970 Craftsmen Exhibitions at the Philadelphia Civic Center.  His work is also in collections as varied as Lenox China, puppeteer Shari Lewis, and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Powell’s unfettered imagination helped him push the boundaries of furniture design “beyond trends and time into a free flowing universe filled with undulating forms, unexpected embellishments and functional fantasy”.

Powell passed away in 2008, as a result of an accidental fall from the second floor of his New Hope home.

Home and Studio

Powell was a designer, craftsman, and sculptor. He also created and built environments. He designed and built his three-story tower residence, fondly known as “The Lighthouse.” The house featured spiral staircases both indoors and out, and an indoor pond surrounded by carved pillars with antique brackets brought from Sicily. The pond was bordered by gardens of rare flowers, hanging Bougainvillea, and two fifteen-foot-high avocado trees. The room was covered with a roof shielded by paneled screens that allowed summer rains to fall inside. Powell’s home featured a raised platform bed that rested in a sky-blue dome with golden stars under a skylight in a tower cupula. The plumbing formed a carefully designed cubist maze. The distant sound of the New Hope train was a steady sound in his life at home. When sculptor Isamu Noguchi came for a visit, he was highly impressed with Powell’s ingenuity and imagination.

Powell’s rustic workshop was tucked away behind his home. It was filled with a vast cluttered assortment of tools, materials, and odds and ends. Some were organized in boxes and jars, some were hanging overhead, and some were piled in heaps on the floor. It was in this studio that he created beautiful handcrafted furniture, often incorporating found objects into his designs.

Travel

Powell created art to sell so he could make enough money to take a trip to one of the far corners of the world. He came home, made more art, made some sales, and again, headed out on his travels. He loved the museums and food in Italy, and the natural beauty on the island of Sicily. He slept in a temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, and explored a small town in China where no one spoke English. Powell loved the intricately carved doors in Morocco. He said, “[In Morocco] You are already welcomed before the door opens”.

On a trip to India in 2000, Powell met the students of the Nataraj Grukul School in West Bengal, India. He was moved by the poor Tibetan children who had been forced to flee from Tibet into India. Powell visited the school several times, and helped fund projects including an expansion, a new barn, and cows to provide milk for the children. He established an endowment for this school to continue to help it thrive.

Powell collected folk arts while traveling around the world. He was interested in art forms that reflected native cultures and belief systems. He shipped his collections home at the end of his travels, and displayed his wares throughout his home and studio. Powell’s house was filled with collectibles from Spain and Africa, masks from Bali and Mexico, a drum table from Morocco, and worked tin from Greek Orthodox churches. He owned an oversized Indonesian rice storage jar, tapa cloth from Oceania, and Sicilian puppet heads.

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