De Poli has endeared himself to me...his exceptional experience to create those colours of masterly invention which enchant us all...with which he has covered animals and vases I have devised for him, transmuting them into sheer poetry.

Gio Ponti

A Modern Take on an Ancient Art

Smalti di De Poli

After visiting museums and ancient archaeological sites in the 1930s, Paolo De Poli, trained as a traditional landscape painter, turned his focus to the venerable tradition of enamel. Through collaborations with other artists and architects and committing himself to meticulous standards and constant experimentation, De Poli brought the ancient craft into the modern era, becoming one of the greatest artists of the medium.

De Poli began his work in high-fired enameled metal in 1934 and his studio's initial output were colorful, jewel-like decorative objects such as cigarette cases and powder boxes. Though the studio was made to create small production runs, the popularity of these items quickly caught on and the studio steadily grew in both size and ambition. Smalti di De Poli, the company under which he produced his more widely-distributed designs, was officially established in 1937 and it offered a range of vases, tableware, frames, candlesticks and jewelry.

De Poli in his studio, circa 1950

De Poli began his prolific collaboration with Gio Ponti in 1944, debuting a collection of decorative panels and furniture with enameled surfaces at Ferruccio Asta in Milan. For the next decade, they worked together on numerous architectural projects, including buildings at the University of Padua and several ocean liners for which Ponti designed the interiors and De Poli created mosaics.

In the 1950s, after the war, Ponti and De Poli designed a collection of animal figures—Ponti folded and cut paper to create the angular and expressive forms and De Poli translated them into enameled copper in bright and captivating hues. Selections from this series were included in the influential exhibition Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today at the Art Institute of Chicago (it was also shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) in 1950, bringing their charming appeal to a wider audience. The following year, De Poli received his third gold medal at the Milan Triennale for his recent works, including his and Ponti's lively animal sculptures.

Curators at the Art Institute of Chicago, reviewing De Poli's works for the exhibition Italy at Work, circa 1950; Catalog for De Poli's and Ponti's enameled animals, circa 1955. Photos: APV, De Poli photo archive

If we can speak of an Italian art of enamel, it is thanks to De Poli, to the road he opened up and followed faithfully...and we should be grateful to him for...a sincere artist's life, a vocation which has found its modern expression in a difficult, ancient and exquisite art—the art of enamel.

Gio Ponti

Birth of the Modern

Peter Loughrey was a talented pioneer motivated by a restless enthusiasm, crucially driven by the willingness to communicate, to share and to discover. An intuitive feel for the burgeoning interest in post-war design led Peter to establish the nascent LA Modern Auctions in 1992 — soon to evolve into the very first dedicated auction platform of its type. Although the initial turnover those first years was modest, LAMA’s impact and resonance was to spearhead a new era of collecting. With these auctions Peter, together with his wife and co-director Shannon, swiftly developed an interactive platform for what was evolving as an increasingly globalised tide of enthusiasts, dealers, curators and collectors. His auctions became a raison d’être, justification to what many of us were at the time tentatively yet willingly exploring. Here, in these auctions, post-war design was spot-lit centre stage, and celebrated as a movement in its own right.

If these initial auctions consolidated and gave focus to the market, then they also gave us an identity — achieved very simply through the semantics of the company that celebrated ‘modern’. A simple and obvious choice, but so influential and less cumbersome than the prevailing options of "twentieth century" or "post-war." Auctions at that time were traditionally associated with antiques, and there was a general disinterest within the trade to consider anything less than seventy years old as having any cultural or collectible value. Although this market had been described as being "modern" for some years already in the US, the word had not yet been internationalised beyond American shores to represent a collecting movement.

LAMA was established at exactly the right time. The zeitgeist was perfect, and helped guide many of us. Around this time I returned from the US and was shortly set to curate my first design auctions for Christie’s in London. Peter’s catalogues during this explorative period were invaluable. Perhaps difficult to understand now, in our era of immediate communication, but the fully illustrated printed LAMA catalogues were the equivalent of a fanzine that would be passed around, photocopied and then memorised. Nowhere else at the time was contained the detailed information that could allow us, many thousands of miles away in London, to distinguish between an early or a late example of, say, an Eames LCW, or to be exposed to the furniture of Schindler or Neutra. And crucially, there were prices. The prices meant that the market was real. And every so often there would be something in Peter’s sales — a trophy lying in wait for the knowledgeable — that would yield a revolutionary price, setting new records and issuing concentric ripples that gave us the confidence to recognise that our passion for this material was no daydream.

Peter had the fortune to discover his calling, and the certainty to pursue it, his delight for discovery underpinned by curatorial seriousness. Together with Shannon, LAMA established a keystone in the foundations of the modern market, flag-bearers of international design and with a global message. Today LAMA co-anchors a dedicated and influential network of US auction sites, all specialised graduates of that early era of modern discovery. A shared mission is always the most pleasurable, so thank you Peter, for helping guide the way.

Simon Andrews
Curator and advisor
Andrews Art Advisory