- September 6, 2007
Sculptor Norman Mercer’s East Hampton house is long, angular, crisp and white against the lovingly landscaped emerald, olive and hunter greens of its three-acre setting. The 6,300-square-foot residence Mercer and wife, Carol, have owned for 30 years has the look of one newly built, but it’s actually more than three decades old, an early modernist design by noted architect Robert A.M. Stern.
The whiteness of the shingle facade flows smoothly into the front entries, where the greens give way to touches of brass and pale wood. Broad steps lead up to a huge, many-windowed living room bright with natural light. But the eye is arrested by a brilliant burst of color at the head of the stairs, an abstract sculpture by Mercer that sets the tone for the sparely decorated, asymmetric space enclosed with curved and angled walls.
A short hallway leads to Mercer’s workshop and display gallery, where one look at his stunning contemporary sculpture proves that he’s mastered a space-age medium – Lucite.
The art came later
Both the 91-year-old artist and his house might be seen as heroic survivors in today’s youth-oriented climate, but Mercer is not one to be left behind. Reared in Manhattan’s pre-Internet, pre-TV days, Mercer grew into manhood nurturing a yen for artistic creativity. He studied at Parsons School of Design, but, determined to make his mark in the world of finance, he parlayed his entrepreneurial skills into a multifaceted career as a product designer and an international businessman, including, among other enterprises, the importing of “silverware” gussied up with a then-new feature: plastic handles.
“Maybe that’s why I turned to Lucite to express my artistic ideas when I retired 30 years ago,” he says from the glass-walled sculpture gallery where a dazzling display of his works sizzles in the sunny space. “I switched from making deals to making art. I was always too busy making a living before that, getting married [he and Carol, who owns an East Hampton landscaping business, The Secret Garden, celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary this year], raising a family.”
Surfaces as smooth as glass finish each piece, but basically the sculptures are all about color – purple, orange, red, yellow and green mix it up with abandon. Each sculpture is like a three-dimensional painting that reveals itself in different ways from different angles. They become exquisite decorative accents for sophisticated residences like the Mercers’, where the art and architecture complement each other while reflecting the couple’s age-be-damned take on life.
“Norman is unique,” says Don Robinson, who with his wife, Ellen, owns two Mercers – one installed on the lawn of his East Hampton house, the other on a balcony overlooking the living room. “His colors are extraordinary, and he never repeats himself. Each piece is an original.
“They just make you feel good,” he adds. “You just have to smile.”
Mercer’s works, which have commanded as much as $100,000, also grace corporate and educational facilities and museums across the country.
Mercer’s involvement in creating Lucite sculptures escalated into a new career. After he retired 30 years ago from the company he founded, Import Associates Art, Ltd., he added the 1,400-square-foot workshop where he and his assistant, Jim Ashley, produce each sculpture, working almost every day with a raft of professional-grade equipment: milling machines, polishers, lathes, jointers, kilns – 16 machines in all. Each artwork takes from one to three months to produce. “I used to work in the basement,” Mercer says, “but I outgrew it years ago.”
All about Lucite
Odorless and completely transparent, Lucite, he explains, is the least toxic of all plastics, even used for dental implants and many household items. It starts with a mix of chemicals that turns into a liquid that accepts dyes; it can be cast in molds to fit almost any design concept. But Mercer has taken the process to a higher level. He mixes the components for the liquid himself and then adds specially formulated dyes with UV inhibitors that make them impervious to light, even bright sunlight. He says he collaborated on developing the improved formulation with chemists at Rohm and Haas, a Philadelphia company that produces plastic products.
“Commercial dyes fade,” Mercer says, pointing out a pair of square samples that are propped up in a clerestory window in his workshop, one treated with “store-bought” dyes, its color almost nonexistent, the other with the type he uses that retains its brightness.
Lucite is not a common medium for artists. There is only a handful of other sculptors, says Mercer, adding that he’s trained several at seminars he has conducted over the years.
There is nothing subtle about Mercer’s vibrant sculptures. They reflect their creator’s zest for life in a way that seems to brush off on anyone who sees them.
“Last year, when I had my 90th birthday, I was grateful for being blessed with this life,” he says with a wry grin. “Now I can only wonder how much time I have left. So I’d better get back to work.”
Norman Mercer’s sculptures can be seen at Guild Hall in East Hampton, the East Hampton Union Free School District Office, the Student Union Center at Stony Brook University, the Mather Hospital Sculpture Garden in Port Jefferson and the West Wing Axinn Library at Hofstra Universtiy.