Artist Miriam Ellner, like other people I’ve been interviewing for my series on creative people who are kicking ass after 60, is not retiring anytime soon. On the contrary, she just moved her West Chelsea studio upstairs to larger quarters, increasing her space by 100%. It’s where she exclusively practices the rarefied technique of verre églomisé (vair egg-lo-mee-zay): gilding on the reverse side of glass, hand-etching in a design, and enhancing it with color. Her clientele is the crème de la crème of world-renowned interior designers and architects, and her projects include murals, multi-layered laminated glass doors, ceilings, large furniture pieces, stand-alone paintings and entire rooms paneled in églomisé glass. Ellner’s work has been auctioned at Sotheby’s under the category, “Important European Furniture.” In 2014, Ellner’s 4-paneled screen, titled Fata Morgana, was included in the juried exhibition 100 Makers: The MAD Biennial at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City. How did a kid from Queens find an obscure art form and transform it for the 21st century?
In 1986, as Ellner was transitioning out of a dance career, she read a piece in the New York Times about decorative painter Lucretia Moroni. Ellner was fascinated by the photographs of glorious oriental rug patterns Moroni painted on floors. As a member of the Rachel Harms Dance Company, Ellner was not only a principal performer, but the company’s set and costume designer. “She created some extraordinary hand painted costumes,” says Harms, who is now a commercial director. Ellner could have remained in the industry in that capacity and more than likely had a stellar career, about which I’d be writing now. “Set and costume design were too ephemeral for my future,” said Ellner. “I wanted to create things with permanence.”
The mysterious, seductive materials cast a spell.
Ellner sleuthed the information about Moroni’s training. After a bare-bones winter research trip to Europe in the waning days of People Express Airlines, Ellner packed her bags, sublet her apartment, and returned to Europe, specifically to the doorstep of the Institut Van der Kelen, the renowned school for decorative painters founded by Alfred Van der Kelen in 1892. “I felt like I entered a completely ‘other’ world, in another time,” said Ellner. For six months she toiled in a cold, damp atelier, learning trompe l’oeil, marbling, gilding, faux bois and other decorative painting and design techniques. All this instruction was given completely in French, a language unfamiliar to Ellner. Nonetheless, she felt like she was in exactly the right place.
While at Van der Kelen, Ellner saw some examples of the pre-roman technique of verre églomisé. Since the Institute didn’t teach the medium, she filed it for future reference and opened The Miriam Ellner Studio in New York City in 1987, doing decorative paintwork on client sites. She took a class in the city on églomisé and by 1995 or so, she was exclusively working in the medium. What suits her so about it? Ellner’s response: “I can’t image more mysterious or seductive materials to cast a spell: the fluid beauty of molten glass made of elements from the earth, cooling into a fixed form; precious metals like gold leaf, palladium leaf, platinum coalesce to dance on the surface of the glass with reflection and light. Eglomisé deals with both the elemental and the ethereal. You become the sorcerer’s apprentice.”
In her hands, this alluring, formerly-obscure art form has become identified with international luxury design. For centuries, églomisé, which dates back to 200BC, mainly was used in accent applications such as mirror surrounds and small furniture insets. In its modern history, one of the most famous examples of the technique is a mural, named History of Navigation, designed by Jean Dupas for the first-class Grand Salon of the French-Deco ocean liner Normandie. The design was executed in glass, paint, gold, silver and palladium leaf by Charles Champigneulle in 1934. Part of the mural is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was last exhibited in 2011. Ellner’s work has been compared to the beauty of those panels.
I asked Ellner if she feels any differently about her creative process or about commerce as she and her business mature. “I feel all my attributes were there as a younger person, raw and undeveloped,” said Ellner. “Through training and experience, I was able to access and utilize them. Taking risks and chances — that’s the way things work for me. I went to Brussels, to Van der Kelen, even though the class was full! I have no problem taking a leap of faith after I do my due diligence. With decorative painting, I was very clear, and when I have that kind of clarity, and it feels right, I dive. You have to take risks or nothing is going to happen.”
Ellner continued, “As a business owner, I’ve learned it’s important to recognize your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. A company is a reflection of yourself. If you’re having trouble, look inward and keep everything, always, about the quality of the work.”
Did she have trepidation about increasing the size of the business and, recently, the work space? “Oh of course!” she said. “There’s always uncertainty. After all, I do something that’s quite rarefied. I don’t have a legacy of that in my family, nor do I come from privilege. My business suffered hugely like others’ after 2008, and that’s when I knew I had to become more visible. So I went to Europe with many pounds of églomisé glass samples to show my work to designers in London and Paris. Then, I created an églomisé ceiling for a room at Kips Bay that received a lot of attention. It was exactly what I needed to do, and I invested. Who knows what next year is going to bring? You can’t let things paralyze you.”
It’s a very intimate art form.
Ellner does all the design and execution in her studio, working with a small staff that includes her managing director Wiley Kidd and production manager Brad Stokes. Her design process is a little hard to describe. She is a collector of all kinds of visual references and has a large art book collection, including contemporary to classic ideas, from painters to jewelry makers, books of ethnic motifs of all types. Her most dominant tool is intuition; ideas roam around in her head for a while, and then she researches, collects visuals and sometimes manipulates them. When the idea is fairly clear to her, she designs in Photoshop and then executes the old fashioned way — by hand. Verre églomisé isn’t anything you can rush. It’s a 100% old-school process, to which Ellner has brought unusual materials and contemporary design styles. The work is done on the reverse side of the glass, working foreground to background, exactly the opposite of what one normally does with a painting. It’s complicated, and there are happy and unhappy surprises.
Does she want to do more collector/fine art pieces like the 4-paneled screen she created for MAD? “I feel like I’m heading in that direction as a natural extension. Fine art and commercial is a funny bridge,” says Ellner. “Projects are hard to define — the lines get blurred. It’s like going to the Met vs. The Museum of Art and Design. Art is kind of a journey. It’s partly the form itself combined with mastery of technique and materials. I don’t really think of them as separate. You get deeper and deeper into what they can do and how they can be transformed. There is an intimacy about it that has nothing to do with the end usage.”