EMIL MILAN LONG TAILED BIRD HORS D'OEUVRES SERVER (d.1957)
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A rare biomorphic hors d'oeuvre server created from Brazilian 'Peroba' hardwood by master woodworker Emil Milan (d.1957). The server is in very good vintage condition with only a tiny speck of a hole on its tail (see photo)
EMIL MILAN (1922 –1985) was an American woodworker known for his carved bowls, birds, and other accessories and art in wood. Milan was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey where he took up wood carving at an early age and learned shop skills from his father, who was an industrial welder. Following his discharge from the US Army in 1945, he took advantage of the GI Bill to study art and sculpture at the Art Students League of New York beginning in 1946. He enrolled in classes taught by noted artists Will Barnet, Jose De Creeft, William Zorach, and John Hovannes. The sculpture courses focused on the tools and techniques of modern sculpture and on the human figure. Both de Creeft and Zorach taught then new methods of direct carving (taille directe) and both produced stylized forms, particularly of women. De Creeft also produced works in wood.
After leaving the Art Students League in 1951, Milan continued carving figural works and what he called “functional sculpture” in wood (bowls, trays, spoons, and other accessories) at his parents' home in Roselle. During that time, he met Myra and Stan Buchner who were forming a new craft association called New Jersey Designer Craftsmen, and he began selling his works in the group’s Christmas shows. The annual Christmas exhibition at the Newark Museum of Art was also a major sales outlet for Milan between 1953 and 1964. During this period, a cutting board with a scoop and a carved bowl made by Milan were selected for the landmark exhibit Designer Craftsmen, USA 1953. The exhibit toured the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Art from October, 1953 through August, 1954, then traveled throughout the United States for a year.
In 1953, the Buchners partnered with David Kittredge to form a woodworking business called Buckridge Contemporary Design, located in Orange, NJ. Milan was the designer, set up and ran the shop, and supervised a small group of workers. The shop produced functional wooden tableware and decorative art in wood, notably stylized fish and birds. These works were sold in specialty shops and department stores in the New York City metropolitan area. Hammacher Schlemmer, for example, marketed a Table Talk line of wooden ware crafted by Milan. Other retailers included Bonniers, McCutcheons, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Buckridge items were included in the model home displays of House Beautiful magazine that were shown at international exhibitions in 1955–56 in Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and Bari, Italy. A 1956 article in the New York Times by Home section editor Betty Pepis also featured objects produced at Buckridge. The business was disbanded by late 1959.
In 1957, a carved tray and two spoons by Emil Milan appeared in the Design Wood exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (now Museum of Art and Design) in New York City. The three works were purchased by the American Craft Council for the Museum's permanent collection. The May/June 1957 issue of the American Craft Council's magazine Craft Horizons had a feature article on Emil Milan, focusing on his tools and methods of work. Also in that issue, Milan's bird shaped hors d’oeuvres server was featured in the Designers Showcase section of the magazine.
The then American Craftsmen's Council launched its traveling exhibit program in 1960 with a "Communication in Craft" exhibit focusing on wood and on fiber arts. Three works by Milan were selected for the "Craftsmanship in Wood" display. The exhibit started at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (NYC), January 8 – February 15, 1960, then travelled to museums, schools, and craft groups across the US. The exhibit included leading woodworkers of the day such as Wharton Esherick, Joyce and Edgar Anderson, Sam Maloof, Bob Stocksdale, and George Nakashima, as well as leading designers such as Charles Eames, James Prestini, and Tapio Wirkkila.
In 1961, Milan bought a derelict dairy farm and moved to a rural setting near Thompson, Pennsylvania. He lived and worked there for the rest of his life. During this period, he sold his works directly to customers from his workshop and through retail shops, and also increased his teaching of woodworking, both at his barn studio and regionally. He taught methods he used carving sculptural forms and functional objects and about varieties of wood species, wood structure, and tool use and care. His students varied widely in experience and skill, from newcomers to emerging professional woodworkers. He taught by demonstration, encouraging individual creative expression and innovation in using both hand tools and power tools. Starting in October 1969, a 30-minute color documentary entitled Emil Milan: Craftsman aired for about six months on Educational TV channels in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Pasadena, CA. A copy of the tape has not yet been found.
Throughout his career, Milan used a wide range of woods including domestic hardwoods such as maple, walnut, and black cherry, as well as exotic imported species such as zebrawood, padouk, cocobolo, bubinga, lapacho, and rosewood. Buckridge items made from imported woods commanded higher prices. He periodically capitalized on grain patterns, intensive figure, and contrasting heartwood and sapwood colors as design elements in his works. Silver components occasionally were added to functional wooden works, and he made a few cheese boards with flat ceramic inserts as cutting surfaces. He was frugal with wood and used scraps to make saleable functional and art objects. Cutouts from large bowl forms, for example, were used to make fish, birds, and abstract sculptures, and the remaining pieces were used to make small salt bowls and spoons.
Milan was an innovator in woodworking methods and a pioneer in advocating the integrated use of hand and power tools, focusing on the excellence of the final product. An article in the American Craft Council's magazine Craft Horizons in 1957 featured Milan's use of both hand tools and power tools to “...still achieve a handmade look.”
Craftsmen should be able to use all kinds of tools and machines. It doesn't matter what tools you use. But it does matter that the thing you produce be the best that can be done. The important thing is the result.
— Emil Milan, Designer Craftsmen USA, 1953
A sequence of pictures showed how he used a drill press to rapidly remove wood inside concave parts of bowls, trays, and spoons. He would then refine the roughed out concave forms with a mallet and wood gouges, before power sanding with flexible disk attachments—thus using a power tool, hand tools, and then another power tool in rapid succession.
He devised tools and techniques for increasing speed and efficiency without sacrificing workmanship. He made flat templates of his commonly produced works to rapidly transfer outlines onto wood blanks. A 12-station duplicating machine was in use at the Buckridge shop to quickly rough out multiple copies of production items. He had several tools made for him by blacksmiths at Peter’s Valley Craft Center, for example, and in at least one case made a wooden prototype of a specialized gouge to communicate his exact requirements.
Milan designed and built a multipurpose drum- and belt-sander, dubbed the “Emil Machine” by his woodworking colleagues. It had interchangeable pneumatic drums of different sizes and a long slack belt. The tension on the belt could be adjusted to achieve a shape that matched the outside curve of a work. A detachable plate could be installed below the upper belt to sand flat surfaces. These power sanding methods were used to rapidly shape the work and to refine and smooth the piece before applying lacquer or linseed oil. A crude slack belt sanding machine, possibly designed and built by Milan, was in use at the Buckridge shop in the 1950s.
He routinely used the bandsaw as a carving tool, standing a slab up on edge and slicing off long thin curves of wood in closer and closer approximation of the final desired form. This risky procedure violates basic safety tenets of bandsaw use that insist that the stock must have a stable flat surface held firmly against the table. He demonstrated his sanding and bandsaw techniques to other professional woodworkers at the Wood '79 conference held at SUNY Purchase, October 5–7, 1979. The event focused on studio furniture and high-end woodworking and attracted more than 400 participants, including many leading woodworkers of the day. In August 1980, the only solo show of Emil Milan’s work in his lifetime was held at Robert Stark’s Susquehanna Studio in Uniondale, PA. Milan continued to live alone in Thompson PA in the 1980s, but his health began to deteriorate. He died April 5, 1985 (age 62) and is buried in Thompson, PA.
Interest in Emil Milan has been renewed in recent years due to a biographical research project funded by the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design that yielded an extensive archival report documenting Emil’s life and work, and an article in Woodwork magazine in 2010. Since then, there has been increased media attention, two major exhibits, and an academic symposium focused on Milan.
|Design Period||1950 to 1959|
|Production Period||1960 to 1969|
|Country of Manufacture||United States|
|Identifying Marks||This piece has an attribution mark|
|Style||Vintage, Mid-Century, Hand-Crafted, Minimalist, Modernist|
|Detailed Condition||Very Good — This vintage item has no defects, but it may show slight traces of use.|
|Restoration and Damage Details||Patina consistent with age and use, Small spot on the tail|