Master of cloisonne with modern and stylish touch

While Robert Kuo is asked to create anchor pieces for clients' houses, his signature is his series of copper and lacquer penguins and snails

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 November, 2014, 6:25am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 November, 2014, 8:23am

At an event in New York recently, acclaimed Manhattan decorator Diana Vinoly approached Robert Kuo and thanked him for the exceptional pieces he had created for her clients, singer Beyonce and her rapper husband Jay Z. Kuo smiled and nodded appreciatively.

"He didn't actually know who they were," said Karen Kuo Chou, Kuo's daughter, who works with him alongside her sister Chin-chin. "I had to point Beyonce out later to my father in a television commercial."

That low-key demeanour is typical of Kuo, a sought-after designer of furniture and home accessories whose dramatic pieces are owned by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Will Smith, as well as luxury hotels worldwide, including the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong and the Ritz-Carlton in Beijing.

Kuo is known for taking the traditions of cloisonne - the ancient technique using enamel to decorate metalwork - and rendering them in strikingly modern ways. His finesse with repousse - metal hammered into relief from the reverse side - is evident in the intriguingly textured bowls on display in his showrooms in Los Angeles and New York, the latter of which opened in 2007.

Kuo is in the throes of a three-decade bicoastal retrospective of his work. His Los Angeles showroom is 30 years old this year, so he recently held a week-long event at the nearby Pacific Design Centre to showcase his work in the past three decades. The exhibition opened in New York on Monday and will run for two weeks.

Although Kuo remains as active as ever, he says that over the past 30 years, his work has evolved such that decorators and private clients ask increasingly for his larger, substantial pieces rather than his smaller ones, opting for a chest of drawers instead of a side table, say, or a hefty coffee table rather than a vase. That is despite his beginning his career making accent pieces.

"I have to create more important pieces for my clients," he said. "Price is not an issue for them. They want something that will be an anchor for the house. If we make a bathtub, they will build the bathroom around the tub."

That is an enviable place for any designer to be in, but perhaps not much of a stretch for someone who was destined to add beauty to the lives of others.

Kuo was born in Beijing in 1946 and raised in Taiwan. His father, Kuo Ming-chiao, who died this year, was largely regarded as Taiwan's cloisonne master: his pieces were given as gifts to guests of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and many are on permanent display at the Smithsonian and the Vatican.

Among Kuo senior's most notable works is 1956, a scroll painting that is 138 feet long depicting the civil turmoil surrounding the Communist Revolution. That piece is kept by his son at his warehouse studio.

At the elder Kuo's cloisonne atelier in Taiwan, which was a draw for American tourists, his son learned the craft as an apprentice. In 1971, the younger Kuo emigrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, where he opened a store in Beverly Hills selling cloisonne pieces.

Any notion of Chinatown tat was quickly dispelled with Kuo's sophisticated and stylised cloisonne, influenced by his love of art deco and art nouveau. He perfected his repousse technique, hammering sheets of copper by hand and then finding interesting ways to surface them with lacquer, brass or 24-karat gold. He also pursued a 17th-century technique of Chinese glass making, Tao Liao Ping, in which glass that is all one colour is dipped into contrasting-coloured glass one layer at a time.

"That was what they made snuff bottles from," said Kuo, who uses the process for elongated and spherical vases and sculptures that look as though sheets of glass have been layered one on top of another. He mixes minerals to make the colours for the glass, favouring subdued shades of caramel and honey and pale jade green.

Starting in the late 1990s, Kuo began fusing Eastern and Western sensibilities into pieces that won him collaborations with well-known brands. He has been working for almost 20 years with McGuire and now handles the furniture firm's lighting pieces, including one that is a natural hand-carved rock crystal chunk welded on to a copper base and featuring a delicate pongee silk shade. He also works intermittently with Ann Sacks, the Portland, Oregon, maker of luxury bathroom items owned by Kohler, making bathtubs, stone tiles and, most recently, ceramic tiles.

Kuo says he does not design for a particular style or sensibility. He spends several months a year in Beijing overseeing production and mostly does limited runs on everything.

"Some pieces might take me 1-1/2 years to finish," he said. "I want everything to look modern but they should work in any space. I like to look at things organically and I am inspired a lot by Chinese history."

Still, there are no dragons and lions in his repertoire: instead, a Kuo signature is his series of copper and lacquer penguins and snails, or his outsized copper repousse pears and peppers.

"I live here now," said Kuo with a laugh. "I want to do things with humour."