Terence Main

The bronze door man

Terence Main, a remarkably boyish 48, merges sophisticated design credentials—he's a graduate of the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art and has two handcrafted chairs among The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection—with a Huck Finn-like sensibility. "I grew up in Indiana. My grandfather had a farm, we had a creek, and I was into nature big-time," says Main, who moved to New York in 1978. But if his inspiration is earthly, his rendering is just the opposite. Incorporating natural motifs and organic shapes into works in bronze, wood, and glass, he transforms tables and doors into something magical.

"He is a master craftsman," says Jane Adlin, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan, who displayed Main's cast-bronze Fourth Frond chair in the recent exhibit A Century of Design, Part IV. "When you hear 'craftsman,' you think of rustic people who live in huts, but Terence is not like that. He really intellectualizes what he's doing—it's not just decorative." Adlin says the museum shows Main's bronze chair more often than even those of Modernist legend Mies van der Rohe: "Mies says one thing; it's extremely important, but it's one thing. Main's work recalls organic design in the vein of earlier work in wood by Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar Aalto. Main speaks about craft and about craftsmanship as well as limited-edition design."

Main's painstaking craftsmanship and his signature blend of art and design have also landed his work in some of the world's most urbane homes and offices. Interior designer Clodagh says she never has vodka at home "unless it's in a Terence Main glass." A table and set of chairs—whose vertebral spines look, admittedly, a touch uncomfortable—dominate the dining room of a Manhattan entrepreneur's SoHo duplex, as Main's Terrestrial Tale sculpture does the terrace.

His doors, in bronze or glass and decorated with fanciful shapes, are arguably the most dramatic of his works. Main insists he was not inspired by any other doors—not even the famous ones by Pisano and Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence, to which they have nonetheless been compared. "I don't see myself in a tradition of anything," he says, "but I love it when people look at my work and talk about Florence or say it looks Indian or African or Aboriginal."

Main's first doors, a set in tempered glass, were commissioned by Clodagh, who has known the artist since the 1980s, for an advertising agency in Tokyo. Ten feet tall, etched with forms suggesting mitochondria, and finished with bronze lintels and cast-bronze handles, they perfectly showcase Main's aesthetic. Making them involved covering the glass in rubber masking, cutting whimsical shapes from it with an X-Acto knife to create a stencil, and then sandblasting the exposed bits of glass to create the design.

Another door Clodagh commissioned, in 1992, was for Manhattan's Felissimo department store. Using laser-cut stencils on glass, Main created forms that evoke swimming sea creatures. "There's something primeval about his work, like something submerged in time," says Clodagh.

But Main's most spectacular project to date is the set of bronze doors at the entrance to a 7,000-square-foot penthouse on Manhattan's West 61st Street. Commissioned by the late art collector Michael Palm in 1995, the doors took nine months to complete. Palm's architect suggested making holes in them for a natural-lighting effect and worked with Main to ensure that the heavy doors functioned seamlessly.

The result, a kind of gilded Rorschach test, is an essay in duality. "I wanted the outside to appear otherworldly and the inside very earthy," says Main. The exterior, facing the elevator, is patinated in marine blues and greens and decorated with spirals and patterns suggestive of stars and fossils. The interior, with a warm brown patina, reminds the apartment's current owner of "trees turning into a deer." She says her guests often spend long periods trying to decipher forms in the abstract composition. Sometimes, she says, they admire the doors to the exclusion of the works by Dubuffet, Matisse, and Di Chirico within the apartment.

This extraordinary construction seems an apt expression of the essential Terence Main, a lifelong elider of distinctions between form and function who called one of his pieces—a riff on Charles Eames' famous lounge chair—My Eames Is True. "I'm really interested in the language of objects and their history," Main says. "It's not enough for me to just make something pretty."

Doors start at $20,000. $ For information, contact the artist at his studio: 423 Grand Street, Brooklyn, New York; 718-384-0105; fax 718-384-9690; www.terencemain.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.