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Design after 1945: post-War design is still affordable--but the best pieces are commanding much higher prices as collectors demand rarity and good provenance.

The market for design between 1945 and 1975 is young: 'Less than a decade,' says Simon Andrews of Christie's, who was responsible in 1997 for the first dedicated sale of such pieces by one of the big two auction houses--a useful test for the arrival of a new market. Private collectors, however, have bought such pieces at market stalls for decades, and small dealers that worked for love rather than lucre, such as 50/50 in New York and Target Gallery in London, have slowly found themselves with larger client bases. One of those private collectors, Warner Daily, disposed of his collection at Bonham's, London, in 1991, and as the market continued to grow in the late 1990s, Christie's and then Phillips took up the mantle. Such growth is directly linked to a trend among collectors of fine art of the period to furnish their homes in a related style. Alexander Payne, head of the design department at Phillips, explains that 'collectors who have a Warhol or a Murakami on the wall want furniture to reflect their tastes'.

Concurrently, a handful of museums began to take seriously recent design heritage. The Montreal Museum of Design organised the exhibition 'Design 1935-65: What modern was' in 1991. Martin Eidelberg, a member of the committee, remembers that the catalogue, that subjected the exhibits to art-historical procedure for the first time, was much admired and museums in Europe followed suit. The Centre Pompidou--an art museum conscious of interior design if ever there was one--began to collect in the mid-1990s, acquiring a Peacock chair by the Danish designer Verner Panton at the 1997 Christie's sale. The respect of museums for such objects has in turn encouraged private collectors to buy at higher prices.

The market has blossomed since Phillips moved their sales from London to New York in December 2000. This June, two world record-prices were set at the sale: a pair of doors of around 1950 by Frenchman Jean Prove for just over $250,000; and a lamp by Verner panton (Fig. 3). The size of the American market is only part of the explanation. Mr Payne explains that the cross over in this market between different fields--fine-art collectors, design collectors and interior designers--is causing competition and under-bidding. Mr Payne believes, in fact, that post-War objects have become so desired in their own right that they constitute a 'different discipline', rather than an extension of others such as interwar design or modern art.


The most valuable works are by original, influential designers who harnessed new technology or created new forms--what Annamarie Stapleton of the Fine Art Society, London, calls 'icon pieces'. The American Charles Eames, with his wife, Ray, is the greatest example. His use of moulded polyester, die-cast aluminium and cat's cradle metal wire, as well as different materials for the seat and legs of the same chair, influenced design well into the 1970s. For instance, the mixing of materials was embraced by the British designer Robin Day in the 1960s. Eames was, indeed, respected from the beginning--MOMA, New York, acquired some works over twenty years ago. The most original French designs by Jean Prouve and Charlotte Perriand command equally high prices, partly because their works of the 1950s clearly follow on from a more established field of collecting.

The Italians are perhaps of equal standing. They benefited from a government that saw design as an area of national pride that would also be a useful economic commodity: the government organised in 1949 a touring exhibition 'Italy at work: Her renaissance in design today'. One of the series of the 1971 Joe lounge chair (Fig. 4)--a baseball pitcher's glove--by J. de Pas, J. Lomazzi and D. D'Urbino sold on estimate for 4,500 [pounds sterling] at Christie's in June.


The market for the British is mixed. Designers original enough to have an international profile, such as Robin Day and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, are collected seriously. A Paolozzi dress was sold by Target Gallery/Fine Art Society, London, for 6,000 [pounds sterling] last year. The most attractive aspect of British design is that quotidian objects were made by the most prominent artists of the time, not least because artists and the governments under which they lived wished to extend their audience to all members of society, an attitude epitomised by the Festival of Britain (1951). Henry Moore designed textiles for Ascher; and Ben Nicholson a poster for Shell. Paul Rennie of the London dealership Rennies has a pair of curtains which are screen prints by the painter John Piper (Fig. 2) for 650 [pounds sterling]. 'If these were prints on paper,' says Mr Rennie, 'They would fetch 1,000 [pounds sterling] each.' The British market is frustrated, however, by what Mr Rennie calls a 'structural weakness' of there not being enough extant work to nourish a large number of collectors.


Irrespective of the 'school' or artist, an advantage of the market is the range of collectible objects. There is, of course, furniture--although beds and wardrobes are less coveted because museums shun them for taking up too much space. However, also collectible are ceramics by Fornesetti (Italy) or plates by Terence Conran manufactured by Midwinter in the 1950s, which have changed in value from perhaps a few pounds in 1980 to around 100 [pounds sterling] now. Collectors sometimes buy houses as an extension of their collection. Neil Bingham, an architectural historian, collector and author of the book Modem Retro (2001) owns a house in South London designed by Span in 1978. Last year Sotheby's New York sold Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1946-51, for $7.5 million; the American National Trust for Historic Preservation bought it, but the rise above the 4.5m [pounds sterling] estimate was caused by a private collector under-bidding.

What the collector looks for

The principles governing this market are the same as those for traditional art, according to Mr Andrews. Assessing the quality of a mass-produced item is not at all a simple matter, and invites comparison with Old Master prints; in both cases, the proximity of a piece to the original intentions of the designer is paramount. Companies manufactured a designer's pieces, often for many years. Earlier versions are more likely to represent the designer's intentions, and assiduous collectors examine furniture to check that rivets and supports are in the right place, and that materials are correct. The logical progression of this bias is to find a prototype. Frenchman Guy de Rougement's Cloud table, which sold at Christie's, London, in June was described as 'possibly unique', and known to have been completed in the designer's studio; it was estimated at the already high 6,000 [pounds sterling]-9,000 [pounds sterling], but fetched 14,340 [pounds sterling]. Even more impressively, Target/Fine Art Society sold a prototype aluminium cabinet by Clive Latimer of 1946 (Fig. 1)--commissioned by Heel's but too avant-garde to be mass produced--for 20,000 [pounds sterling] in 1996; it has since been acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.


Rarity increases value, again a phenomenon familiar to print collectors. Furniture designed by Max Clendinning (Britain) and built by the company Race Furniture numbered only a few hundred examples. 'it makes more sense to treat them as an edition of artist's prints,' says Mr Andrews, who has correspondingly described his lots as 'edited by' various companies. The Panton lamp (Fig. 3) was a show piece, and only four are known. Meanwhile, the 'make do and mend' generation of post-War Britain tended to re-use material, or wear out an object completely. Annamarie Stapleton points out that the cheaper the materials, the less likely they are to survive. A panel of fabric of 1960 designed by Marino Marini and manufactured by Edinburgh Weavers was sold for 6,000 [pounds sterling] by Target/Fine Art Society last year.

Condition has become vital. The re-covering of furniture with new textiles is a disaster. Mr Andrews gave an example at Christie's. Olivier Mourgue's 1965 set of chairs and sofa are made of a steel frame covered with a thick, ribbed orange wool. Re-coverings always have a less generous pile, and the sculptural lines of the ribbing as well as comfort are compromised.

The most important development in the market, however, is provenance. The Prouve doors at Phillips, for instance, came from a co-worker of the designer. Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textile and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, explains that a good provenance allows a precise dating of a piece, which in turn allows comparison with other versions. Since these mass-produced products are undated and are often found in markets without evidence of their past, it is often exactly this dating that establishes the original intentions of the designer, as well as related concepts such as alterations. In a phrase, it helps the collector identify what Mr Wilk calls 'period feel'. Mr Andrews says that private collectors are following suit. The most exciting aspect of the market is that it will change in the next decade according to new information yielded by good provenance.

NOTABLE RECENT SALES Design after 1945

Porthole door panels by Jean Prove (1901-84), manufactured by the Prouve workshop, c. 1950. (Phillip's New York, 10 June 2004)--$254,000

Fireball hanging light (type E) by Verner Panton (1926-1998), manufactured by J. Luber AG, Switzerland, 1970. (Phillip's New York, 10 June 2004)--$81,600

Cloud table by Guy de Rougement (b. 1935), c. 1969 (Christie's London, 30 June 2004)--14,340 [pounds sterling]

Textile by Marino Marini (1901-80), manufactured by Edinburgh Weavers, 1960. (Target Gallery/Fine Art Society, London, 'Artist's textiles', 2003)--6,000 [pounds sterling]

Wedgwood lemonade set decorated with 'Oranges and lemons' rhyme by Richard Guyatt (b. 1914), manufactured by Uberty's, 1951 (Rennies, London, 2004)--2,500 [pounds sterling]
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Title Annotation:Collector's Focus
Author:Spanier, Samson
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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