Friday, March 14, 2014

Ascalon Design Family by Miles Ladin ……………. published in the Swiss Magazine, Aufbau


Three Generations of Industrial Designers
Bridge Their Vision From Art Deco to The Contemporary

This past January,  New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue transferred their sacred scrolls of the Torah from their old Amsterdam Avenue location, one block south into the city’s  first newly built synagogue in fifty years.  The scrolls now sit in not just any ark, but one  designed by a family design team whose elevated vision connects  the modern Israeli decorative arts movement of the 1930’s with contemporary aesthetics.

Ascalon Studios has taken advantage of three generations of visionaries to create a remarkably  meditative focus within the main sanctuary.   Modern and light with blond wood  and a full bank of windows, the room avoids visual representation with the important exception of the Ascalon’s bronze ark doors.   The doors as well as the actual ark structure were conceived and created by David Ascalon and his two sons Eric and Brad.  A bronze sculpted olive tree adorns the doors and harkens back to  the Ascalon family patriarch, Maurice Ascalon whose bronze menorahs of the late 1940’s popularized the olive branch motif in the decorative arts of Israel. 

This is not, however, Maurice’s first time around the block waiving an olive branch at the citizens of New York.  Nearly 75 years ago,   at the age of 26, Maurice created a monumental relief sculpture that adorned the façade of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Titled “The Scholar, The Laborer, and The Toiler of the Soil”, this copper repoussé work comprised of three figures measuring 14 feet high.   It was also a monumental moment, as the pavilion and sculpture introduced Americans to the burgeoning modern Jewish state, a decade before the official state of Israel would come into existence. 

This impressive sculpture, which now resides in Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, symbolizes the Promised Land while combining the traditions of archaic art with the stylization of the Art Deco movement.  Ascalon first experienced the  Art Deco aesthetic while studying art in Western Europe.   Growing up in a Hungarian shtetl where his early artistic aspirations were shunned by the  ultra-religious Chasidic culture, Maurice decided to leave  home at the early age of 15.  He ended up studying  at the prestigious Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels before heading to Milan.  There he partnered with  Giovanni Rosa and  designed some of the early mannequins for La Rosa Mannequins, a company  well known for creating  sophisticated figures for couture designers.  In 1934 Maurice decide to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine, where on a recent visit he had met his wife and would start his family.  This decision was extremely prescient; Mussolini would enact the Italian Racial Laws in 1938 and many of Ascalon’s relatives living on the continent would not survive the impending Holocaust.

In Tel Aviv, Maurice realized his desire to create decorative metalwork for the masses and founded the Pal-Bell Company. Their wares included  bowls, pitchers, vases, and ashtrays as well as  menorahs and other Judaica.   Purchased by  locals and tourists, the objects were also exported to well known department stores in Europe and the US.  According to seasoned Judaica collector Aviram Paz, the  designs Ascalon produced for his  Pal-Bell company earn him the esteemed title of “father of modern Judaica Art Deco”   At  times the styling looked towards European decorative artisans such as René Lalique but the brass and bronze utilitarian objects also convey a unique aesthetic, perhaps  reflecting the new found freedom of the Promised Land.   

Their most well known design that showcased this aesthetic was their 1948 “oil lamp” menorah decorated with twin olive leaf branches,  the symbol for the new state of Israel.   One of these iconic menorahs resides in the permanent collection of New York’s Jewish Museum.   Another hallmark of the  company, came about when Ascalon developed a chemical process to mimic the green patina that art objects traditionally only achieve with age.    Through Ascalon’s experimentation and application,  this chemically induced look known as “verdigris”, became an important stylistic look in the modern Israeli decorative arts movement.   Both the olive branch motif and the “verdigris” look were soon adopted by rival designers with varying degrees of success.

After spending two decades in Israel producing his designs as well as participating in the Israeli War effort by having his factory  both design and produce munitions,  Maurice decided to emigrate with his family to the United states in 1956.  In the next two decades, while in New York and Los Angeles, Maurice became a master silversmith creating Torah crowns and other objects for synagogues.

He also spent these years passing down his knowledge to university students as well as his own children.  His son Adir was a well respected surrealist painter and sculptor who collaborated with the famed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  But it was Maurice’s son David who chose to follow in his footsteps,  creating sculpture, mosaics, and stained glass for houses of worship and other public institutions.   The stained glass, that David has been producing since he partnered with his father in the founding of Ascalon Studios in 1977, are modern and for the most part abstract.  These designs often accentuate the spiritual by creating  especially  ample streams of light that flow  through the colored glass. 

Like his Father, David Ascalon is also a  sculptor,  creating both small table top art objects and larger pieces.  The larger installations include memorials such as the iconic Holocaust memorial he created in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The 15 foot sculpture that was installed along the Susquehanna River in 1994, consists of  a series of stainless steel poles entwined with a rusty-looking serpentine shaped form that references barbed wire.  The power of the piece is singular, due to the form as well as the specific contrast in metal materials.

A decade after its installation, the memorial became the subject of  heated controversy within the community of Harrisburg as well as the American arts community.   Due to an underhanded supplier of the original rust colored material, the barbed wire aspect of the piece was substandard and needed replacement.  Instead of allowing Mr. Ascalon to do the necessary repairs on his work of art, the Harrisburg Parks and Recreation Department, through the advice of a contentious lawyer,  decided to have a third party restorer do the work.  Besides replacing the barbed wire aspect with a shiny silver metal that detracted from the original artist’s intent, Ascalon’s signature was burnished off. 

The incident prompted Ascalon Studios to assert the U.S. Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, a federal copyright law allowing artists to protect their work from neglect or destruction based on what is called “moral rights”.  David’s son Eric, who had recently retired from practicing law, in order to run his father’s business,  acted as co-council in the litigation.    The case was settled out of court resulting in the appropriate restoration of the work by David Ascalon as well as restored credit.  This case, one of only a handful of VARA lawsuits on the books, is still studied by law experts and through online seminars. 

Besides the business and legal acumen Eric Ascalon brings  to Ascalon Studios,  he often contributes in the  development of concepts for the various commissions.   This was the case for the Lincoln Square ark, where he joined his father David and brother Brad in the creation of  perhaps the first innovative liturgical industrial design object  that celebrates  21st century Jewry.  The ark doors seamlessly slide open into the larger curved surrounding structure.  Besides the bronze doors, whose material was used in the Tabernacle of Moses,  the structure combines Jerusalem stone as well as Cedar of Lebanon, a wood used in the First Temple. 

Brad Ascalon’s contribution to the ark is substantial and no surprise due to his own rising star in the contemporary industrial design scene.  He specifically conceptualized and engineered the curved form of the ark.  Although Brad collaborates on some  Ascalon Studios projects, he has his own eponymous studio and a resolute commitment to contemporary furniture design.    Brad currently  has a chair produced by Bernhardt Design, a company whose exhibit at next month’s International Furniture Fair in New York is highly anticipated.   Amongst his impressive accolades, he is one of  only two Americans ever to have designed for the upscale French furniture brand Ligne Roset.  In addition, his  “Atlas” tables are carried by Design Within Reach which also carries his  Carrara marble menorah, a modernist nod to the legacy his grandfather Maurice (who died in 2003)  has provided .  Whether looking at this minimalist sculptural  form, his father’s evocative stained glass, or Maurice Ascalon’s hammered copper 1939 masterpiece,  it is clear that the design genius found in the work is truly a family affair. 

(author's note: this article was written in 2013)