At Barneys, Stella's on the shelf

"LET US BE FRANK" appears in big block letters on a window at Barneys New York in Manhattan. Behind the message is a display of dinner plates and silk scarves designed by the art world's best known Frank -- as in Stella. The artist, whose signature work has evolved from Minimalist paintings to "shaped" canvases in Day-Glo hues to Baroque metal constructions, also makes limited-edition functional objects.

Does he think of them as art?

"I think of them as plates and scarves," he says. "But, believe me, they are very good."

Stella's latest venture comprises 500 sets of 12 plates, each with a different design; and 1,000 scarves, 500 in each of two designs, with half of each design done on silk twill and half on silk georgette. Offered for sale exclusively at Barneys' flagship store, the plates are $10,000 for a set of 12; the scarves cost $1,000 apiece.

Both products grew out of his work with master printer Ken Tyler, who retired four years ago.

"The scarves are a natural extension of the regular printing process," says Stella. "Printing on silk is every bit as good and sometimes more interesting than what happens on paper."

Plates are far more difficult, he says. "Ken and I worked on a lot of ceramic projects, and I tried to make some plates with Rosenthal, but it never seemed to work out. The designs were too complicated, and I just wasn't very good at it. But then I got onto something more graphic and straightforward, using smoke-ring forms, and Ken found a Korean firm that did really good work. They made decals of the images we gave them and printed them on plates. It was just one of those things that, after many attempts, finally fell into place."

But the plates didn't go into production until David Mirvish got wind of them. A Toronto-based theatrical producer who began collecting Stella's work when he ran a gallery in the 1960s and '70s, Mirvish offered to finance the manufacture of the plates. He followed through with limited editions of the ceramic works and the latest scarves. Mirvish sold a few, but it was his partner, Steven Nowack, who had the idea of going to Barneys. Nowack struck a deal, and the scarves and plates hit Madison Avenue.

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