In Robert Kuo’s world, alabaster pears stand five feet tall, bronze chairs mimic cumulus clouds, and repoussé snails rivaling the size of the family dog sunbathe on the lawn… If it all sounds like the wondrous world of Dr. Seuss to you, we understand—but thanks to the compelling artistry and craftsmanship of Robert Kuo and his team of artisans, these amazing creatures don’t just live in a fantasy land.
Kuo, who was born in Beijing and immigrated to the U.S. in 1973, may now hold the reputation as being one of the world’s most out-of-the-box artists, but his background is intensely traditional, rooted in the ancient Chinese art of cloisonné. As far from avant-garde as that may seem, the laborious art form awarded Kuo a diverse skill set that would power his career for decades.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 1973 and opening a traditional cloisonné studio in Beverly Hills, Kuo began to fuse cloisonné with other methods like repoussé. His signature style quickly came into focus: meticulous finishes paired with colossal scale, anamorphic distortion, and themes of whimsicality. He hopscotched from using enameling to repoussé to lacquer to keep up with his mind’s breakneck speed of generation.
As is to be expected, his magnificent artwork caught the eye of some of the world’s most magnificent places. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas and the Singapore Ritz-Carlton both requested commissions, as did the Four Seasons in New York. High-end retailers like Baker Furniture, and McGuire Furniture and Gump’s in San Francisco followed suit, granting the general public access to Kuo’s miraculous treasures for the first time.
Now in his seventies, it seems fair to knight Kuo’s career as one of the legendary ones; the kind that some will simply say “aren’t made that way anymore.” His daughters, Karen and ChinChin, have stepped in to help with parts of the business, but Kuo—who, like most great artists—scoffs at the notion of slowing down, still heads up the bulk of the artistry. With his schedule still as demanding as ever, we were privileged to be able to speak with Karen, recently, about her father’s career, his custom works, and what she sees as being his most enduring legacy.
What is your gallery name and where are you based?
The gallery name is Robert Kuo Ltd. We are based in Los Angeles. We have West Hollywood and New York City locations as well.
Your father began working in cloisonné, but has gravitated more towards repoussé in recent years. Can you explain the repoussé process.
Repoussé is the art of hand-hammering decorative relief onto sheet metal, or, said another way, it is the art of hand-chasing metal. It begins with mallet blows administered to the center of the sheet metal, continuing towards the outer edges; the same spot is never struck twice. The metal is then heated and worked until properly formed. We work mainly with copper, but also in brass and white bronze.
How and why did your father get into this specialty? And likewise, how did you and your sister, ChinChin, come into the business?
Our family has always been in the creative industry. Our grandfather, Ming Chiao Kuo, was a calligraphy artist, and his works reside in both the Vatican and museums in Taiwan. He worked in cloisonné as well (in fact, our family’s cloisonné was purchased as diplomatic gifts by Madame Chiang Kai-shek), and my father learned from him.
The difference between my grandfather and my father, is that my father doesn’t just follow traditional techniques, he innovates them. He is constantly questioning the capabilities of materials and creating pieces that transcend perceived boundaries, both geographical and stylistically. ChinChin and I are amazed at our father’s prolific and creative mind. His work is his passion. Who would not want to support that kind of passion? Both ChinChin and I are very different in terms of temperament and skills, and so we fell into our respective positions at the company very naturally.
Who is your customer today? Has your customer changed since opening your doors in the 1970s?
The client has definitely changed since the 1970s. We have always sold to designers and collectors, but nowadays, since we have the capability to work in a very customized manner, we are able to work with architects and designers on pieces that are not “off the rack.” We are making pieces that are integral to the design of the space, and not just meant to embellish at the time of installation.
Is the desire for bespoke pieces becoming more common?
A desire for bespoke and custom is definitely becoming more common at the high end of the design market, as collectors want to participate in the creative process of the things they buy. As stores like Restoration Hardware grow in popularity, so does the desire for bespoke, thanks to those who that don’t want the same living room as their friends. The bespoke customer is one who desires pieces with history and a story—not to mention— longevity.
How does technology help you find new customers? Are your clients global?
Technology is our future. It is amazing how technology is connecting people from all of the world. In fact, we have clients that we have never met, but have worked with for years thanks to technology. We connect because of art and aesthetics—that is our common language. Technology is integral in our future because our businesses cannot survive as a stand-alone brick-and-mortar in one city. We need sites like DECASO to increase our reach and find those specialty buyers.
Tell us about creating something custom in cloisonné, repoussé and / or lacquer.
Different artisans work on different pieces. There are lacquer artisans, repoussé artisans, cloisonné artisans, and finishing artisans. There are usually a couple of artisans working on one piece since it will often require many different techniques. When we work in repoussé, we also designate artisans based on the design and pattern. So the two repoussé studios work on different pieces, based on design or pattern repoussé that is needed. Custom repoussé typically requires 20 weeks lead time.
What about the L.A. design scene that most excites you right now?
L.A. is still relatively affordable compared to the other big cities like London, NYC, and San Francisco, and so there is an energy being generated by creatives migrating here from all over the world. Between, design, art, music, food and fashion, it is a very exciting place to be right now!
Your father has created an incredible body of work over the past few decades, but is there a piece that you can single out as a favorite?
I think my favorite has to be his pomegranates. He created the “Wedding Pomegranates” (pictured below) for my wedding.
Your father’s work has a strong element of whimsicality. Where does he draw his inspiration for these lighthearted pieces?
The pieces that he creates gives people a glimpse of his sense of humor. Unlike many artists, he is looking at the beauty and whimsy of things and tries to avoid the angst. His pieces don’t have to make a huge statement; he just wants to create what is most pleasing to him and his aesthetic.
Lead photo by Hannah Sy