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Todd Merrill
Credit: Lucas Flores Piran

Design masters: Inside New York’s Todd Merrill Studio

It was just five years ago that Markus Haase decided he wanted to make a career change, giving up construction work to focus on his hobby of creating beautifully carved stone sculptures. This year, the German-born artist is exhibiting an enormous LED sculpture crafted from cast bronze and hand-carved onyx, commissioned by property giant Related Construction at Design Miami Basel—a part of Art Basel, one of the world’s most prestigious art fairs. This meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the art world is the work of New York gallerist Todd Merrill.

“When Markus came to us, I asked him to make a little table,” recalls Merrill. “He came back with this absolutely wonderful crossover table crafted from marble and wood. So, we began working with him to develop a catalogue of furniture and lighting. The piece at Art Basel represents the journey he had to take to move from one stage of life to another and to really express himself as an artist. It’s just drop-dead gorgeous, and I’m incredibly proud of him.”

Haase is just one of around 30 artists and designers represented by Todd Merrill Studio, alongside a similar number of fine artists and historic designers. Among their work, there’s the nature-inspired, organic bronze forms of Erin Sullivan, the dynamic bent-wood luminaires of John Procario, and the dramatic sculptural work of Vikram Goyal, which combines Indian motifs with Brutalism, psychedelic art, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Moderne influences.

“We take people at different stages of their career,” says Merrill. “Perhaps it’s a stone sculptor who wants to develop marketable furniture and lighting, or an artist whose career has already gone through several stages and they want to refocus and find something that is right for today’s market.

Merrill’s own journey into the art world began with his family, who have been in the antiques and art business for three generations. He was working as Director of Public Relations at Christie’s auction house throughout the 1990s, and by 2000 he decided he wanted to return to his roots. He opened a small gallery on the corner of Ludlow and Stanton Street on the Lower East Side—which he describes as “a kind of dicey, glamorous little corner”—and began to sell a mix of antique and modern furniture pieces.

The work tends to be very powerful and so you don’t really want to furnish your whole house with it. They’re really centrepieces that make a room come alive—they spark thoughts and emotions.

Todd Merrill

He quickly became fascinated by American custom and studio furniture from the post-war period. While people had heard of makers like George Nakashima and Vladimir Kagan, there were dozens of other key designers who had been largely forgotten. He began to collect work from the likes of Paul Evans, Phillip Lloyd Powell, and Karl Springer, and by 2004 had moved to a showroom in 65 Bleecker Street, the only Louis Sullivan building in New York.

“The post-war work is extravagant, bold, and artistic,” says Merrill. “It began what I would call a revolution towards a different kind of contemporary decor. When I first saw the work of Paul Evans, for example, I thought it was some of the ugliest stuff I’d ever seen—but as I continued to look at it, I realised it was genius. It’s works of art disguised as furniture and it’s become very collectable worldwide. It’s the really decorative 20th century stuff like this that has lasted and retained value.”

Dramatic in scope, Markus Haase’s Stratus is influenced by classic and modern sculpture

By this time, Merrill had become one of the leading experts on post-war American studio design. In 2008, he wrote a book, Modern Americana: Studio Furniture From High Craft To High Glam, on the 30 designers that defined the period. It’s since become a seminal work on the period and was expanded and republished in 2018.

It was while writing this book that Merrill’s story took yet another turn. He contacted some of the living artists who had long-since retired, such as Phillip Lake Powell and Vladimir Kagan, and began to have conversations about reviving their careers. Todd Merrill Studio started representing living artists, rather than selling pieces in the secondary market. Soon, younger artists were also approaching Merrill and the business shifted to dealing exclusively with top-of-the-market American studio furniture.

“We had always sold a lot of fabulous lighting, and now we have people like Dominick Leuci and John Procario making the most amazing lighting—it’s more spectacular than we ever had from the vintage work,” says Merrill. “And, it’s doing very well.”

Today, Todd Merrill Studio has a 4,000-square-foot gallery with soaring, 18-foot-high ceilings in New York’s vibrant Tribeca neighbourhood, where work from all the artists is shown. There’s also a smaller gallery in Southampton, New York that showcases the work of a single artist in a series of exhibitions that run between May and September each year. A recent exhibition, for example, looked at how furniture maker Stefan Rurak uses abstract expressionist painting to inspire his work in steel and concrete.

While the artists that Merrill represents are diverse in their output, their work is united in the presence of a maker’s hand and the way it interprets materials and challenges our understanding of their potential. “The artists we work with have to have an innate talent,” says Merrill. “I don’t want someone who is just designing on a computer. We want people who approach the work as a piece of art and have a unique talent with the material.” Take the way John Procario bends timber, and lights it with LED lighting, for example, or the innovative gel coating technique used to create Dominick Leuci’s lighting sculptures.

The thrill and excitement of helping a designer evolve their practice to where their work is really marketable and to see it get into a museum or important collection is incredibly satisfying.

Todd Merrill

As a result of this approach and the singular effect it produces, the work of the designers Merrill represents is sought after worldwide by high-end decorators and architects for both residential and commercial projects. “The work tends to be very powerful and so you don’t really want to furnish your whole house with it,” he says. “They’re really centrepieces that make a room come alive, and these pieces spark thoughts and emotions because they are both design and art at the same time.”

Sakura Vases by Dutch artist Maarten Vrolijk, 2020

It’s now been 12 years since Merrill shifted direction to focus on living artists, and while the challenges have been many—ranging from simple logistical issues to increased competition for both artists and clients as custom studio furniture has become more established—the rewards are greater. “The thrill and excitement of helping a designer evolve their practice to where their work is really marketable and to see it get into a museum or important collection is incredibly satisfying,” he says. “Some of our artists can just sit back and know they are now established—and that is very rewarding.”

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