Local Obituaries

Art Deco historian, author Ric Emmett dies at 73

ART DECO TREASURE: Ric Emmett and his wife Iza, operated the original Modernism Gallery in Coral Gables from 1987 to 2004, when it was destroyed in a fire. Emmett, seen here in 2004, recently self-published ‘American Art Deco Furniture,’ a reference work that has been called a definitive look at the form.
ART DECO TREASURE: Ric Emmett and his wife Iza, operated the original Modernism Gallery in Coral Gables from 1987 to 2004, when it was destroyed in a fire. Emmett, seen here in 2004, recently self-published ‘American Art Deco Furniture,’ a reference work that has been called a definitive look at the form. Miami Herald Staff

Ric Emmett was “at the top of his game” in the last week of his life.

“He had so many plans, this was so unexpected, but you know what, he spent the last week of his life doing exactly what he loved,” said his wife, Isabella “Iza” Emmett.

The noted Art Deco historian and author had just completed and self-released his new reference work, American Art Deco Furniture. Issued as a limited edition of 1,000 copies, the book took Emmett four years of exacting research to complete.

Emmett originally called the book, American Art Deco Furniture and Lighting. But the two subjects grew so unwieldy that Emmett decided to break them into two volumes. Hence, his 569-page volume, American Art Deco Furniture.

At the time of his death on April 7, at age 73, following a stroke, Emmett was 75 percent done with American Art Deco Lighting, his wife said. She hopes to complete the book.

That last week, the couple visited Philadelphia, Emmett’s birthplace, for the annual International Society of Appraisers meeting. They sprinted over to New York where Emmett conducted research at Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum for his second book.

“He bought a whole bunch of lights for his next book to photograph and learn about and write about. He just loved the research part of it,” his wife said.

He also loved to share what he learned. The Emmetts, who married in 1979 after a 13-year friendship that began in Miami, opened the Modernism gallery in Coral Gables in 1987. The space was devoted entirely to Art Deco.

Modernism, at 1622 Ponce de Leon Blvd., with its extensive library, was a mini-museum, a host site for a Salon series of Art Deco conversations and where WSVN-7 taped its Trash or Treasure series. Emmett served as the TV program’s lead appraiser until Modernism was destroyed in a fire in 2004.

“He was probably the world’s leading authority on American Art Deco furniture,” said friend Michael Kinerk, co-author of Rediscovering Art Deco U.S.A. “There was no poster, book, table or chair from any designer working during the Art Deco period that Ric did not know and recognize on sight. He truly was a walking encyclopedia.”

Students at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, a couple blocks from the couple’s home, and art teachers, historians and writers, like former Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen, tapped Modernism and the Emmetts for mentoring and insight.

“Not only did he bring his clientele the high end of Art Deco — not the kind of thing we were getting from South Beach, which was watered-down — but he would have designers’ stuff and had the most wonderful library,” Kohen said. “I used to go there to use his library…and he would take me through all the stuff he had there. I learned a lot from him. His inventory was a kind of mini-museum,” Kohen said.

American Art Deco Furniture, organized around designers of the late 1920s and 1930s, culminates a passion that began in 1979 with his purchase of a Deco door stop of a geometric duck. This find led to a lifelong search for Art Deco artifacts.

“It was really wonderful that he got to see this book come to fruition as it has become viewed as one of the most important books on the subject,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner and founder of Books & Books. “But at the same time, I will miss his spirit and sensibility and his sense of humor and his remarkable good taste.”

Adds Beth Dunlop, editor of Modern Magazine, and former architecture critic for the Miami Herald: “Ric Emmett was a forerunner in his field. He instinctively recognized the beauty and value of American Art Deco furniture and was among the first gallerists to sell it — and to celebrate it. He was also quite the researcher and scholar, tracing the pedigree of almost every object and work of art he encountered. His new book, American Art Deco Furniture, is a testament to both the fastidiousness of his research and his great love for the period.

“Plus, he was lively and charming and oh, so much fun.”

This was a man who, while at Valley Forge Military Academy, wore one brown shoelace and one black shoelace “just to see what they would say,” his wife said.

He moved to Miami Shores in the mid-1950s and graduated from Miami Edison Senior High School in 1959 and the University of Florida in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in advertising.

Emmett, who also wrote poetry and worked in the hotel industry in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, earned his master’s in marketing from the University of Richmond in 1966.

To the end, Emmett, a voracious reader, was content, Iza Emmett said. “He said, ‘If I’m not happy nobody around me can be happy.’”

In addition to his wife, Emmett is survived by his daughter Jennifer Bird, his grandchildren Trent, Toby and Spencer, his sister Joanne Milleson and brother Roy Emmett.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. Louis Catholic Church, 7270 SW 120th St., Pinecrest. Emmett’s wife Iza and daughter Jennifer will showcase his book at 8 p.m. April 30 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.

Donations can be made to The Ric Emmett Foundation, 770 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Suite 301, Coral Gables, Fla., 33134.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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