KARL SPRINGER: SURFACE INTERACTIONS

Lavish, flamboyant, stylistically fearless—there is simply no catchall term for Karl Springer furniture. From sculptural benches that boast shapes so divine we’d grandfather them in as the 27th letter of the alphabet if we could, to that omnipresent soufflé pouf (which resembles a velvety kernel ready to pop, no?), Springer gave luxury furniture a reason to shed its stodgy skin and try on a daring new guise.

While burl and Lucite were all the rage in the 1970s, Springer boldly declined the invite, instead opting to swath Ming-style tables in white embossed croc skin and credenzas in pebbly shagreen. Avant-garde New Yorkers and Across-the-Pond royals swooned over the sumptuous linings. It wasn’t the first time dyed and lacquered hides had been used in design, per se, but it was the first time the results felt ultra modern and bombshell glam (thanks to Springer’s adventurous color palette of tart tangerines, deep oxbloods, and ink-stained navies).

Shocking color and texture was meticulously balanced by an element of refined classicism. Among Springer’s signature pieces, it’s easy to detect echoes of Art Deco and Bauhaus. Other pieces mimic motifs pulled from far-flung locales like Africa and Asia. Fancy an example? Look at how Springer’s T-console is really an adaptation of the Chinese altar table. In chic Brazilian lacewood, no less…

True, the more you look, the more it becomes apparent that Karl Springer deservedly requires a second glance—It’s certainly not all a matter of surface.

 Design: Summer Thornton
Design: Summer Thornton

From Side Jobs (and Side Tables) to Laps of Luxury

Born in Berlin in 1931, Springer moved to New York City in the 1950s. He took a job as a stylist at Lord & Taylor and on the side peddled to establish himself as a book binder, which he did from his Washington Square residence. Soon book-binding influenced the production of his jewelry box line, desk accessories, and a petite battalion of telephone tables. Their common denominator? They were all covered in hide.

The practice of using dyed and lacquered hides had been in vogue in the 1920s—favored by designers like Jean-Michel Frank and Aldo Tura—but it had yet to see a resurgence. By the late 1960s, Springer felt the trend was ripe for a new rift. He focused on using only the most textural hides, dying them in bold lip colors, and then applying them to sexy, fashion-forward shapes like waterfall-edge consoles, Pagoda-inspired chairs, and biomorphic cocktail tables.

Working with animal-derived skins (and later heavy materials like travertine and gunmetal), Springer’s work could have easily induced shivers (both literally and figuratively), but his immaculate craftsmanship and obvious eye for luxury rendered his furniture to be nothing but tasteful. The public—perhaps beginning to feel the first ticklings of a yawn when it came to the mass-produced plastic designs of Herman Miller and Knoll—fell hard. In fact, it was one of Springer’s telephone tables, (a little ditty covered in snakeskin) that was originally discovered by the Duchess of Windsor. Enamored with the table, the Duchess introduced her closest friends to the designer. As the friends of duchesses tend to do, they ordered dozens more.

In 1965 a Karl Springer boutique was opened in NYC’s burgeoning “Boutique Row” on East 52nd Street. Upon its founding, Springer was famously quoted as saying, “Once I was discovered by the Duchess and her circle, I probably could have gone on making little leather phone tables forever. But you need a challenge.”

Challenge? Cue the coral, horn, gunmetal, and granite…

Photo: Eric Piasecki; Design: Ernest de la Torre via ELLE Decor

What Makes a Springer Piece?

When thinking of investing in a Karl Springer piece there’s a good deal to consider, especially when you figure that the majority of his pieces were custom commissions. Here, we’ve broken down some of the designer’s most famed hallmarks (so that you can leave the heavy scrutinizing for weighing out the pros and cons between that posh shagreen console and faux-malachite credenza…)  

One: Oversized proportion. In the winter of 1977 Springer was quoted in Architectural Digest as saying, “Oversized furniture makes a room more important. I tend to design everything a little larger than seems logical and the result is often exciting.” Indeed, his palatial proportions—which read especially well when applied to typically compact pieces like mirrors and coffee tables—do quicken pulses.

Two: Chunky legs. Modern Magazine reminds us that if a piece does not have chunky legs it is not likely an authentic Springer. Look for column-like or panel-style legs on everything from coffee tables to benches. On a side note, Springer never used thin glass, either. Yes, consider a Springer coffee table the green-light for a cocktail party of the swinging-from-the-chandeliers variety…

Three: Worldly influences. While the vibe is always unshakably New York, Springer furniture never shied from borrowing from the world design forum—be it African, Chinese, or Classic Grecian. Even more remarkable for its time, was the way in which Springer outsourced furniture production to the regions where his materials originated. Case in point: buttery goatskin tables were crafted in Mexico miles from where the goats were raised, and coral-covered credenzas made in the South Pacific, where coral was plucked straight from the off-coast reefs. Springer worked tirelessly with local craftsmen to get details just right—and it shows.

Four: Quality. Above all, the defining characteristic of Karl Springer furniture is the mastery with which he approached it. Virtually every piece of his can stand alone as a museum-like work. “Quality, that’s what most important to me,” Springer again said in 1977, “The integrity of surfaces, the elements of restraint—these make luxury more piquant. Everything depends in the end of the uncompromising workmanship and rigid control, all in pursuit of quality. As for me, I allow nothing to represent me that is not my best effort.”

Indeed, to own a Karl Springer piece is to own a piece of his unrelenting vision; one that nods to the past while brazenly pushing into the future.

Featured Photo: Cinnamon Projects for DECASO