Furniture Photo Credit:

Serious Design Is the Next Big Collectible

This week’s auctions at Sotheby’s and Christies have shown that pieces that a few years ago would have been castoffs now bring in big $$$$.

Take a good look at the writing desk and chair below:

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Nice, right? Heck, take a closer look at the chair:

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If I told you they were designed in 1935 by the French designer Jean-Michel Frank would you be impressed? I might be after I Googled Jean-Michel Frank. How about if I told you that they’re being auctioned at Sotheby’s this Wednesday and that the estimate was $70,000 to $100,000 USD. And that’s just for the desk—the chair’s another $15,000 to $20,000 USD. Crazy time?

Well yes and no. Browse through the catalogue here and you quickly see that far from being outliers, this desk and chair are part of quickly growing interest in treating 20th century design in the same way we treat fine art. And with the Frank piece you can make the argument that since the days of Thomas Chippendale people have always valued the craftsmanship and paid accordingly for it. But the new trend seems to value design (i.e. the idea) every bit as much procedure.

Take this sweet shelving unit by Charles and Ray Eames.

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It’s got amazing design, but as for craftsmanship, well, that goes to the production department at Herman Miller where they cranked out tons of these in the mid-1950s (and they still make a variation on them today). Yet Sotheby’s still thinks they can get between $10,000 to $15,000 USD for what amounts to a used piece of mass-produced furniture. Why? Because the public is finally beginning to appreciate that the great designers—like the Eames—are the last bastion of undervalued artists.

Scroll down on the Sotheby’s catalogue and you’ll come across the two other designers who were the trailblazers when it came to changing public perception of the non-existent line between art and design: Harry Bertoia and George Nakishima. Fifteen years ago you could pick up their work for a fraction of what it goes for now. But then somebody looked at one of Bertoia’s decorative sculptures:

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And was that any less “important” than, say, a fine art sculpture by the artist Antony Gormley such as:

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One could be had for under $5,000 the other for under $500,000.

For his part Nakashima’s handmade coffee tables don’t seem that far off Henry Moore’s handmade sculptures.

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Table by George Nakashima.
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A handmade sculpture by Henry Moore.

 

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