Tips of the Trade
Pull Up a Chair
New Technology, New Materials, New Chairs
Post-War American and Danish designs combine hand- with machine- crafting to echo classic 18th- and 19th- century Windsor forms. (L.) George Nakashima, American (R.) Hans J. Wegner, Danish
A Post-modern Ionic column made of molded polyurethane design. Studio 65, Italian.
1970s Thonet Bentwood chair with erupting atoms. Alesandro Mendini, Italian. All of these chairs are in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum.
Chairs manufactured in recent decades are already being sought by collectors worldwide. "I see chairs of the 1980s and 90s showing up at auctions today," reports Usha Subramaniam, founder and president of Icon20, a Web site devoted to 20th-century design and decorative arts. This dramatically shortened turn-around time comes at the end of a century that saw a revolution led by architects executing their ideas on smaller design scales, such as the ubiquitous chair.
With many late 20th-century chair designs already being widely sought as collectibles, an expert offers a few words of wisdom for savvy collectors-to-be
"The leaders of the last century moved from one medium to another, and that's still the sign of a leader in design today," says Usha, pointing to Marc Newson, a silversmith born in Australia in 1963, France's Philippe Starck, an architect born in 1949, and American architect Frank Gehry, born in 1930—all of whom are also noted furniture designers. Gehry's most recent achievement is his titanium masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, but he is no stranger to innovative uses of alternative materials: his laminated corrugated cardboard chairs of the 70s were breakthrough designs retailed at affordable prices by such popular outlets as Bloomingdale's, and are valuable collectibles today.
Mass Market Opportunities
Usha tells collectors to be especially aware of the opportunities mass marketing bring to the collecting world, where we see venues such as the Target chain of stores offering a sizable range of household products designed by architect Michael Graves. "At these prices, a collector can buy one for use and one to pack away for posterity," she laughs. But responding to the serious question of whether furniture purchased for its possible future value as a collectible should be used, as furniture, in the meantime, Usha answers firmly, "So long as it's nothing too precious... Use? Yes! Abuse? No!"
She emphasizes the real enjoyment of surrounding ourselves with objects that are pleasing, and warns against investing in collectibles merely for their future value. "While art does tend to keep its value, and, if you're really lucky, even grow in value," she suggests, "investing is one thing and collecting is another."
Usha encourages chair collectors to look for the work of accomplished, influential designers, and to be especially alert for any pieces that predate the designer's becoming a household name. As for undiscovered designers, the marks of a promising work in mass-manufactured chair design will always be the combination of rigorous training, classical references, sound construction, and the innovative use of technology and materials—attributes that add up to inspired creation.
Collectors new at the chair collecting game will benefit by keeping in mind these guidelines Usha's Icon20 web site offers its vistors:
- Start reading. Learn a little about the styles and the designers, look at the pictures, make a list of things you want to check out.
- Start looking. Visit galleries, go to auctions, sit on the furniture and touch the objects (you can't do that in museums). Decide what "speaks" to you.
- Pick a period, or a material, or a designer, or a category. It's easier to become a connoisseur if you narrow your focus: don't try to learn about everything.
- Decide what you can afford. Then be prepared, like any true collector, to go over your budget.
- Remember that the objective is to enjoy the experience, from looking, to learning, to shopping, to living with design.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Furniture category:
A Cabinet Full of Eggs? (Philadelphia, 2007)
Honestly Abe's Chairs? (Mobile, 2007)
A Match Made in Heaven (Or at Least New York) (Milwaukee, 2007)
Getting Your Furniture on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW (Providence, 2006)
Elk Antler ... and a Little Bit of Moose (Omaha, 2005)
A True Roux? (Reno, 2005)
Early Southwest Furniture
Leave the Finish Alone
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.