On the corner across the street from the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles is a gray, rather nondescript two-story building. Upon closer inspection the windows reveal metal furniture with very textured surfaces, highly lacquered oversized pots, gigantic copper sculptures and extraordinary metal objects. Passing through the doors, one enters the imaginative world of Robert Kuo, where waist-high copper rabbits, huge copper snails and jumbo copper pear sculptures amaze and delight the visitor.
Since emigrating to the United States in 1973, the Beijing-born Kuo has surprised and captivated interior designers, celebrities and anyone venturing through the double glass doors of his gallery, and home furnishings manufacturers, such as McGuire Furniture and Ann Sacks, have tapped his creative genius to create unusual lamps and metal tiles.
Kuo is an artist and an inventor who has applied his various talents to cloisonné, repousse, lacquer and glass. Kuo learned the art of cloisonné, where designs are created by sectioning off patterns on copper with wires and filling each section with a different color enamel, from his father, who had a factory in Taiwan. After moving to Los Angeles he experimented with different forms and instead of replicating the traditional Chinese ornate, floral patterns, he created ribbon patterns more reminiscent of the Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods. Goldfish Bowl, one of Kuo’s cloisonné masterpieces, is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Sackler gallery.
In the 1980s Kuo began experimenting with repousse (the art of hammering decorative relief into metal) and he shifted his focus to creating repousse copper sculptures, furniture and pots. A new art was born, with Kuo's creation of giant copper animal and plant forms, like a 24-inch-high rabbit and pear (left and above left) in a hand-hammered and antiqued finish, 3-foot-tall sheep and equally as long lilies, nesting tables with a wood-grain design and tree trunk tables with tripod legs that look like roots. As whimsical as his sculptures are, Kuo thinks like an engineer. A client in Kansas who ordered a copper toad received one with cement in the toes so it wouldn't fly away in the event of a tornado.
Kuo's skills have not gone unnoticed. McGuire Furniture company commissioned lamp bases, which he has so artfully done, incorporating Chinese motifs and shapes into stunning designs. The fluted bulb floor lamp (below right) was inspired by a garlic bulb that is found in Chinese bronze work from the Han Dynasty, and Kuo used that same shape in a tall, slender-necked gold-lacquered vase (below left) he shows in his gallery. Store designer Bill Sofield recently commissioned huge panels of copper in the bark finish for Baker Furniture's showrooms in Los Angeles, California, Dania, Florida, and Houston, Texas, and architects routinely call on Kuo to embellish the interior architecture of a house or building. Guess who made the huge repousse copper planters at the Ritz Carlton in Singapore?
Not one to sit still, Kuo recently has been experimenting with unusual forms of Peking glass, which is very thick because it is comprised of multiple layers of hand-blown glass. Building color upon color results in unique shades with unusual depth. His technique with lacquer is the same in that his artisans apply layer upon layer, scrubbing it into the copper rather than painting it on, and usually giving a pot, box or vase up to 60 coats.
There are two other Kuos in the business, daughter Karen, who runs the gallery, and Kuo's wife, Alice, who creates bold necklaces and bracelets with large chunks of tanzanite, turquoise and coral (above right). The pieces are dramatically displayed on copper busts in cases along a dark-wood-panelled room upstairs, all of it designed by Robert Kuo. What will he think of next? Kuo is customarily quiet, thinking ...
Robert Kuo will participate in the Avenues of Art and Design walk on Saturday, June 8, from 4:30 to sundown with an exhibit of Liao Dynasty jewelry.