Even after 30 years at his art, Ado Chale still rocks on.
Ado Chale is trudging through the meandering cobblestone streets of Brussels with the vigor of a teenager, shielded from the damp cold by a mere cashmere sweater. “I’m a man of the North,” he says proudly. With his solid gait and quick wit, it’s difficult to believe that Chale is 79. “Eighty in March,” he confides over a wine-fueled, three-course lunch in a family Italian restaurant. “I feel great.”
And why shouldn’t he? After suffering two decades of near oblivion, his intricate mineral-encrusted tables created in the Seventies are enjoying a renaissance with power collectors like Bernard Arnault, Peter Marino and Tom Ford. “It was hand-to-mouth for a long time,” he confides. But now, Chale’s furniture is commanding record prices at auction. In September, for example, a circular Chale dining table soared to 130,000 euros in heated bidding at Sotheby’s, exceeding presale estimates of 50,000 euros.
“I’m a hot commodity,” jokes the bespectacled, gray-haired designer, who is nothing but humble. “I’ve been through too much to be impressed by the frenzy. Why didn’t it happen before? I’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years.”
Not that Chale hadn’t experienced success. In the Sixties and Seventies, collectors from the royal families of England, Belgium and Spain, the Rothschilds, legendary Paris antique dealer Jacques Kugel and Liliane Bettencourt coveted his creations. Museums in Paris and Tokyo celebrated his oeuvre. But in the early Eighties, the winds of fortune shifted. Changing tastes and a downturn in the economy combined to make it impossible for Chale to sell “one little thing.”
Fast-forward to 2005, when influential Paris dealer Yves Gastou staged a successful comeback show of Chale’s work. Suddenly, his star was rising again.
“What is amazing about Ado’s work is that it can be incorporated into every type of interior,” says Gastou. “You put a Chale next to an 18th-century piece and it looks great. It looks great next to design and contemporary art. He’s an original.”
Chale’s career is the equivalent of a long, arduous voyage with multiple detours. Self-taught, his first métier was fashioning advertising panels in sheet metal. A visit to Brussels’ World’s Fair in 1958 got his artistic juices percolating, as he found himself spellbound by the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. “It was an awaking for me,” he says.
Along the way, Chale nurtured a passion for mineralogy, traveling to India, Afghanistan and the U.S. in search of rare stones. “I would arrive in New York and hop on a Greyhound,” he says. “I stopped at every rock shop along the way. In Arizona I went into the desert to find fossils and petrified wood.”
When his precious stash arrived home in Brussels, he incorporated the minerals into resin tables. By the mid-Sixties, he had opened a gallery to exhibit his minerals alongside jewelry, furniture and various objects of his creation.
When business dried up, he was forced to close the gallery. He was barely able to hold on to the atelier with its pink facade and red door, which he has occupied for more than 30 years. One constant remained: a passion for work. “It kept me going,” he confides. “It takes passion to make beautiful things. I’m in my studio every day. I dream about my work at night.”
Indeed, there are overtones of reverie in Chale’s most stunning creations, whether it be a black table encrusted with chips of elephant tusk, a slate cabinet in a curving organic form or a bronze table cast from patterns made in the snow. They seem to pull one into a rich, imaginary world. “Nature is my muse,” says Chale, who also painted abstract color-block canvases. Recently, he even published a small book of erotic drawings. “I draw every night,” he continues. “There’s nothing more beautiful than a woman’s form.”
Chale now is basking in the renewed vogue for his work. He often pays impromptu visits to dealers in Brussels to see who has one of his vintage tables for sale. And he follows the auction results of his work with marked interest. He continues to create, too, making new tables in his studio with the help of two workers.
Last fall, Chale finally moved out of the small bedroom above his workroom. His new home, right across the street, is the stable house of Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau masterpiece, the Hotel Solvay, which is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. With the vigor of a first-time homeowner, he is renovating and redecorating the impressive space. His intent is to arrange pieces from his archives for public exhibit. Just don’t tell him he’s preparing a museum.
“That’s a morbid idea,” he protests. “I’m still driven by creation. It’s what I’ve always lived to do.”