Modernism: New era propelled furniture design

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Frits Henningsen, Cuban flame mahogany and horsehair upholstered sofa, manufactured for Frits Henningsen Studio, circa 1938. 31 inches by 93 1/2 inches by 31 3/4 inches. $8,000. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries.

“Modernism” didn’t just one day emerge, say Jan. 1, 1950, fully realized, from the mind of its remote creators.

It is the stuff of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair “Century of Progress,” the boundless optimism of post-World War II America, the sleek comic lines and manic music of Tex Avery’s MGM 1949 “House of Tomorrow” cartoons, and the ever-present acres of the suburban ranch house that subsequently spread endlessly across the nation.

That form, those colors, the unbridled enthusiasm and audacious hope represented therein … It all hearkens back to post-war 1950s America, when the West was ready to embrace the new realities of easy living and convenience.

The fact is that Modernism has never gone out of style. Its reach into the present day is as deep as its roots in the past. Just as it can be seen and felt ubiquitously in the mass media of today – on film, television, in magazines and department stores – it can be traced to the mid-1800s post-Empire non-conformity of the Biedermeier Movement, the turn of the 20th century anti-Victorianism of the Vienna Secessionists, the radical reductionism of Frank Lloyd Wright and the revolutionary post-Depression thinking of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school in Germany. There is no end to the ways in which the movement of Modernism, its evolution and continuing influence, can be parsed. To that end, there is more than a little irony in the fact that, in the world of collecting, Modern has a retro connotation.

Charles and Ray Eames, molded plastic rocker, yellow, 24.25 x 27 x 26.25 inches. $750. Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.

In today’s economic climate, Modern is as close to a sure bet as collectors – experienced and neophyte alike – are going to get. From there, however, it’s a game of names and taste. Do you gravitate to Scandinavian design? American? Chairs or tables? Loveseats or sofas? Art? Sculpture? Lighting?

Ask the experts where to put your money and energy when it comes to buying Modern and you’ll invariably get two answers: Put your energy into what you love, and your money into the best that you can afford. What that means on an individual basis is as varied, however, as the Modern movement itself.

“The Modernists really changed the way the world looked,” said John Sollo, a partner in Sollo Rago Auction of Lambertville, N.J. “What I personally love about Modernism is that the business, as with a lot of other areas of antiques, hasn’t cut it off in some arbitrary way. We’ve said, ‘Yeah, that’s cool’ to anything made from 1903 to 2003. That opens it up.”

That openness is key, not only to the current success of Modernism as a philosophy of design, but also as an area of collecting. Sollo’s partner in business, and one of the most recognizable names in the field, David Rago, takes Sollo’s idea a little further by saying that Modernism is actually more about the names behind the design than the design itself, at least as far as buying goes.

“A decade ago people were buying up everything they could with the name Eames on it,” Rago said, referring to Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-wife design team. “Today you can still get great deals on designs by modern masters. You just have to be informed about what you’re doing. Go to major auctions and specialty Modernist shows. Talk to experts and learn as much as you can before you put money into it.”

Richard Wright, the namesake of Wright20 in Chicago – a house whose Modern specialty auctions draw some of the very best examples of Modern design still available – echoes another idea that Rago put forth: that sometimes to be ahead of the curve you have to be behind it.


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“There are bargains throughout the market starting at the turn of the century,” said Wright. “Further, many early historical items are undervalued – or at least not hyped. Look for items out of fashion: 1930s Art Deco for example.”

The word “bargain,” as it refers to Modernism, must also be taken in context. A bargain can be $500, $5,000 or $50,000, depending on what, where and who you’re buying. Again, it comes back to knowing your stuff. This can be accomplished by in-depth study, by association with reputable dealers and by taking your time and buying within your comfort zone.

Lisanne Dickson, Director of 1950s/Modern Design at Treadway-Toomey, goes into a little more depth on this, underscoring that a “bargain” price is relative, but certainly available.

“Classics of Modern design are undervalued and still fairly plentiful,” she said. “After the 1999/2000 peak in prices, for example, designs by Charles and Ray Eames fell in value over the next seven years and have only started to firm within the last year. Prime examples can be had at fair prices, depending on how determined buyers are.”

Dickson cites the current bargains in the U.S. market for big-name Scandinavian designers, and cautions entry-level buyers against going straight for the prime examples; they’ll be priced out quickly.

“The closeness of an example to the original intentions of the designer is critically important,” she said. “The earliest version of a design is most likely to represent the designer’s true intention. Later modifications were likely made to enhance the bottom line, or ease production.”

Those later designs are where an education can be had, collections formed and bargains found.

No discussion of Modern can be complete, however, without examining its genesis and enduring influence. As discussed earlier, Modernism is everywhere in today’s pop culture. Austere Scandinavian furniture dominates the television commercials that hawk hotels and mutual funds. Post-war American design ranges across sitcom set dressings to movie sets patterned after Frank Lloyd Wright houses and Hollywood Modernist classics set high in the hills.

What is de rigueur for any villain plotting to take over the world? A Bauhaus-inspired lair. No corporate headquarters is complete without “Modern” art on its walls, and chairs and tables straight out of the van der Rohe, Wormley, Knoll and Perriand catalogs. In the same breath, however, you have to look at the dorm rooms of college students and the apartments of young people whose living spaces are packed with the undeniably Modern mass-produced products of IKEA, Target, Design Within Reach and the like.

Along those lines, then, here’s how Peter Loughrey, owner of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, puts it:

“Cheap rentals,” he said simply. “You see a ton of print ads with Modern-designed items because rental of these things was relatively easy to come across. These are mass-produced pieces, and agencies could easily order up sets of five, 10 or 50 chairs for an ad or other marketing venture. Once these started popping up, there was no stopping it!”

This is an interesting theory, and there can be no denying that the post-World War II manufacturing techniques, and subsequent boom led to the widespread acceptance of plastic and bent plywood chairs along with low-sitting coffee tables, couches and recliners.

Wright takes this idea one step further, speaking of Modernism’s appeal on an individual basis, despite its mass-production origins.

“The Modern aesthetic is the culture of our times,” he said. “We live in a post-Modern world that freely borrows from all past styles. In addition, art and design have become signifiers to a large group of the upper-middle class. We are increasingly individually designing our world. Technology fuels this and the wide range of choices available.”

“The modern aesthetic grew out of a perfect storm of post-war optimism, innovative materials and an incredible crop of designers,” said Dickson. “The wide availability of the designs has made them accessible to the general public at reasonable prices.”

On a more philosophic note, we can turn once more to Sollo, who posits that – even though Modern design has that “retro” feel – its time may have barely just arrived, if it’s even come yet.

“I think that the people who designed the furniture were maybe ahead of society’s ability to accept and understand what they were doing,” he said. “It’s taken people another 30 to 40 years to catch up to it, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”

It is quite possible, taking Sollo’s point to heart, that we are indeed living in the era when “Modernism” has finally come into its own, where it’s finally understood as relevant across all levels of culture.

Experts agree that the bottom line for prospective buyers is this: find a dealer that you trust, go to specialty Modern auctions, sales and shows and ask as many questions as you possibly can. There is no such thing as a bad question when it comes to a “Modern” education.

Once you are well equipped with the proper knowledge of what you like and where to get it, there are tremendous deals to be had at whatever level you’re buying. From $100 to $1,000 to $100,000, if you know unequivocally what you’re after, then “Modern” is yours for the taking.

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Noah Fleisher currently the Public Relations Director at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas. He has written extensively for Style Century Magazine, its blog, StyleWire, as well as Antique Trader magazine, New England Antiques Journal and the Northeast Journal of Antiques and Art. This is his first book for Krause Publications.

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Warman’s Modernism Furniture and Accessories Identification and Price Guide
By Noah Fleisher

Warman’s® Modernism Furniture & Accessories showcases the iconic innovation of this period of design like nothing else, and provides you with current pricing for various styles of furniture from this contemporary category of collectibles. Items are showcased in more than 1,000 auction-quality photographs, and accompanied by feature details including designer, size, year of manufacture, and price.
Learn more

More Images:

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Russel Wright, maple dining table, circa 1935. 30 inches by 50 inches by 23 inches closed. $3,500. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries.
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Walter Lamb, bronze and rope rocking chair, manufactured by Brown Jordan, designed mid-1940s. 30 1/2 inches by 20 3/4 inches by 31 1/2 inches. $1,750. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries.
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Philip and Kelvin Laverne, bronze and pewter "Tree of Life" coffee table, circa 1960. Signed on top: Philip + Kelvin LaVerne. 17 inches by 35 1/2 inches by 26 inches. $4,000. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries.
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Charles and Ray Eames, RAR rocker, manufactured by Herman Miller USA, circa 1950. Herman Miller patent label on the underside. Molded on the underside: HERMAN MILLER. 26 3/4 inches by 24 3/4 inches by 27 inches. $500. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries.
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Available in July, Warman's Modernism: Furniture & Accessories, may be preordered at www.krausebooks.com.

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