Friday, January 9, 2015

Miriam Ellner

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Verre églomisé is a decorative art technique involving a process in which the back side of glass is gilded with a variety of luminous materials, most commonly gold leaf or silver leaf. The gilding may also be combined with reverse painting on the glass. As Miriam Ellner, one of the most sought-after artists in this decorative technique says, “it’s magic ... they’re like moving paintings.” The word “églomisé” is derived from the 18th century French decorator, Jean-Baptiste Glomy but the art form dates back to pre-Roman eras. We visited both Miriam’s apartment and her studio—it’s always a delight to discover that some ancient art form is still very much alive in New York city. In fact Miriam is looking for more space for her team because of awakened interest from clients in “new money” countries such as Russia, China and India.
What drew you to this particular form of decorative art?

Oh, it was one of those things. When I studied decorative painting, I studied in Brussels and I learned wonderful techniques that I still use today but I learned how to gild and once you actually use gold leaf, it’s such a beautiful material I can’t describe it. I knew about églomisé and once I started working with it was like magic. I mean you can put glass, gold, crushed abalone … some of the most beautiful things. It’s all about the light, all about the angles—they’re like moving paintings.

There is something otherworldly about these materials, even in the names: moon gold, crushed abalone, japan paints …

It’s beautiful to see it coming into the 21st century. It evolves and I’m just somebody … well some people like to go wide—I like to go deep.
The hallway leading to Miriam's studio.
Photos of past projects line Miriam's studio wall.
Looking across the studio. Miriam explains the technique of églomisé to us.
More views of the studio.
Supplies including color samples of custom mixed paints.
Brushes and more brushes.
Japan paints are stored behind glass doors.
Custom mixed paint is stored in labeled plastic containers.
In everything one reads about you, there’s this sort of elegiac tone, you know “one of the last few artisans doing this kind of work” but in places like Asia for example, are there people doing this?

I think about five years ago I went to Europe because I wanted to spread my wings and I had a contact who was going to introduce me to the French divas …

Oh, there are églomisé divas?

I tell you, what I found was they didn’t have anyone who could do it like I did. Now it’s definitely more popular [to train as an églomisé artist] but I’ve been doing it since 1990 and I have to say, I’ve expanded it and done some really complex things that at least, I haven’t seen.

[Miriam's studio manager for the floor, Brad Stokes adds: Miriam is fearless! People originally églomisée-d small things but with this woman, it's, "Let's do the entire ceiling in églomisé. Let's do the entire room!"]
Samples (reverse side) using multiple precious metals, a very large piece destined for the interior of a yacht and commissioned by Seymour Diamond Design in London.
A detail of the reverse side of sample-textures such as white gold leaf, 22-karat gold, red gold leaf.
Samples backed with palladium leaf that have been left to dry.
Some current projects in progress on the table and wall including: four laminated sliding door panels commissioned by Tony Ingrao and a project for designer Juan Pablo Molyneux: panels that will eventually line the walls of a Moscow make-up room.
Samples of laminated glass including the Tony Ingrao sliding doors and door panels to be sent to Gstaad, a project which was commissioned by designer Brian McCarthy.
Four laminated sliding-door panels for designer Tony Ingrao.
The reverse side of one of the panels, work that is in progress on the four-paneled sliding door.
One of a series of four tabletops for the Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain for designer, Pierre Yves Rochon.
Two of a series of panels that will line the walls of the make-up room in Moscow. The panels, which are in the style of Louis XV, are gilded with 22-karat gold leaf, multiple polychromes and palladium leaf.
A tabletop for The Four Seasons Hotel in Bahrain in the style of Edgar Brandt for designer Pierre Yves Rochon. The materials used are red gold leaf, palladium leaf and polychromes.
For how many hours are you able to stand here and physically do this work?

Oh, I get up at 7:30 in the morning. And I have just a wonderful team of people. And many of them are artists—I find they’re the best to have work for me.

I read that you said, “I’d be a mess if I didn’t work with my hands.”

Yeah … I mean what I do is part of who I am. I don’t want to separate out those things. I don’t think it’s a choice. And you don’t make money for a very long time. But the things that I love to do, I’m good at. So I have a certain confidence. If someone asks me to do something I’ve never done, I just say, “Oh sure, I can do it.” Then I figure it out.
A close up of the Molyneux Moscow make-up room panels.
Samples from past and current projects plus recent, experimental samples.
A photo of "Fata Morgana", the 360-degree screen exhibited at The Museum of Arts and Design for the "New York Makers" show.
You said that you do have plenty of demand for this, I was a bit surprised because we don’t see many places where this work is used as part of the décor. The last place I saw it was in Ellie Cullman’s apartment.

Well now I’m looking for more space because the projects are all really big.

Worldwide, which countries give you the most work?

I mean I do have work in the US but I also have English designers and I have French designers [who commission pieces for their clients] and they all work in Russia, Switzerland, China, India … Dubai.
Miriam working on a sample for designer Michael Smith.
In some ways it seems a very feminine form of decorative art. The word “powder room” keeps cropping up.

Weeell … it was … and I mean it lends itself to entryways and powder rooms and dining rooms. And statement rooms.

People like looking at themselves too!

[Laughs] There you go!

And you can check out the people behind you when you’re at the bar …

Now, that’s what we can offer!
A member of Miriam's team, Brian Brown works at gilding another commissioned piece.
Keirsten Read working on Tony Ingrao's sliding doors.
Brian and Keirsten.
Tools on top of the sliding door panel. The black carpet underneath enables anyone working on the project to see what he or she is doing.
Tools of the trade and a moiré weave laminated glass panel.
Brian gilding palladium leaf.
A transparent sample panel using palladium leaf.
Reference books are stacked in the office area—Miriam has plenty more at home.
Designs and elevations for the Moscow project.
So, Miriam you’re covered in glitter. Are you always covered in glitter? You look like a 1970s disco queen.

[Laughs] Yes … it gets everywhere.

And at last Sian is going to have to learn how to do the accent on the “e” in Microsoft Word. But I have to ask you, do you know how to do it?

Yes, I do. [looks at Brad] um … [Brad says, “option e e”]
An Asian chest dominates the wall of Miriam's front entryway of her Upper West Side apartment.. The leather side chairs were purchase at Aero. The curved glass mirror was created by Miriam.
Looking across the dining room: the table and chairs are from Design Within Reach. On the far wall a photograph by Edward Curtis hangs above a vase by Frances Palmer and filled with fresh flowers.
In the entry to the living room, a work by artist by Catherine Owens. 'Dress', hangs above a bar cart filled with decanters and family photos.
Small brass face boxes are arranged next to a lamp purchased at an upstate antiques show.
Miriam's Upper West Side living room.
Steel-and-glass coffee tables from a shop in Soho stand atop a rug Miriam purchased on One Kings Lane. The sofa is from Room & Board and the pillows were purchase at a nearby flea market.
Miriam painted an octagonal side table in a 'faux bois'.
Hans Wegner's 'Papa Bear' chair and ottoman fills a corner of the living room.
A view past the dining table towards the front windows of the living room.
The living room TV stands atop a 1940s dental cabinet purchased from a Pier antiques show.
A pair of small chairs that a friend brought back from Africa stand in front of a cabinet displaying objects and curiosities that Miriam has collected over the years.
Arranged upon the glass shelves of the display cabinet are lacquer boxes and a gold Buddha from a trip to Burma, as well as hand blown Murano glass champagne flutes.
Close-ups of the Murano glass champagne flutes, a silver box from Burma and two glass engravings by Jiri Harcuba.
A wire sculpture from South Africa is positioned next to other favorite objects on the top shelf of the display cabinet.
A silver teapot purchased during a trip to Turkey stands atop an Eileen Grey table from MOMA.
A view across the living room into the study.
In Miriam's study an Asian desk purchased from the now-closed down Orange Chicken on Franklin Street stands atop a rug from One Kings Lane.
Postcard-size paintings purchased at the yearly benefit auction held by Visual AIDS are grouped upon the desk in the library.
Decorative Chinese paint brushes hang in the bookshelf niche.
A wedding photo of Miriam's parents is mounted from the top bookshelf. To the left of the bookcase is a work by artist Catherine Owens.
Hanging between the study windows is a small abstract work by Catherine Owens. To the right is a collage by Paulina.
More books on art and design fill a glass cabinet in the study.
On the far wall is "Asuka Nimbus", a relief print on paper by Philip Taaffe. It hangs above a kilim-covered chair from George Smith.
A view into the living room from the study. On the shelf, a small watercolor by Georgia McGovern.
Crammed spice shelves—Miriam is a serious cook.
In the hall: a star light fixture from More & More Antiques.
Looking across the light-filled bedroom. In the corner: a Fortuny silk teardrop lamp.
The woodcarving above the bed comes from Indonesia and was given to Miriam by a close friend. The bedcover is a suzani purchased on a trip to Istanbul and the antique linen pillows came from a flea market.
On the bedside table, a vase filled with fresh flowers stands next to a beaded lamp and a Bakelite clock. The bottom shelf is filled with books for bedtime reading.
The photos of when Miriam lived in Greece were taken by Don Stickles.
Old family photos and memorabilia hang above Miriam's bedroom dresser.
Miriam's grandmother's old blue music box and some of her beloved box and container collection.
The south facing windows in the bedroom lets the sun stream in. The large incense burner is a memento from Miriam's stay at a Zen monastery.
Indonesian storage boxes and lusterware Arts and Crafts ceramic tiles are arranged upon the bookcase beneath the window.