The market for collecting mid-century modern furniture has come a long way in the past 15 years. “There’s so much more information around now,” Christian Quinlan, the dealer and collector behind new online shop, the Cabinet Rooms (TheCabinetRooms.com), tells Emma O’Kelly in The Times Luxx magazine. “You can search for Eames chairs and see them for sale through a whole new generation of online auction houses all over the world.” That’s good news for collectors, but it means that dealers have to be at the top of their game. “Everyone – buyers and sellers – are so much more knowledgeable.”
Quinlan’s “virtual window” is “heavily edited and keenly curated”, says O’Kelly. During October’s launch, a Dactylo desk by Jean Prouvé, priced at £4,800, a pair of interlocking black chairs by Joe Colombo at £3,800 and a Hans Wegner Flag Halyard chair for £5,200 were all on display. The stock changes every week, and Quinlan is careful not to overload the market and to check that everything he sells is bona fide (see below). His biggest sale last year was an £18,500 Poul Kjærholm PK 26 sofa, notes O’Kelly. “In another 15 years’ time, that might very well be considered a real snip.”
It was around 1998, “cool creative types” began tossing out their cheap furniture in favour of “funky votive candles and wrought-iron beds, and in came the clean-lined furniture of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll”, says Steven Kurutz in The New York Times. Two decades later, mid-century modern furniture is still all the rage among collectors, demonstrating its remarkable staying power. The styles of Art Nouveau, 1920s Spanish and “shabby chic” have all had their time in the sun. But with mid-century modern, “it’s as if the mechanism that refreshes cultural trends every few years has developed a glitch”.
Indeed, says Megan Buerger in The Washington Post. “The minimalist movement that first swept through US suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s has gone through so many streaks of popularity over the years that it’s beginning to feel like a design staple.” So, what’s behind its resurgence this time? Well, anyone who has watched London property prices soar in recent years will know people, particularly the young, are having to make do with less space. “The style’s simple and low-to-the-ground silhouettes are a perfect match,” says Buerger. With property prices staying high, it looks like mid-century modern furniture will remain in vogue a little while longer.
If you want to get the feel for mid-century modern styles, albeit with an Asian twist, the Barbican in London is hosting “the first major UK exhibition to focus on Japanese domestic architecture from the end of the Second World War” next year. The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 runs from 23 March to 25 June 2017.
Wave goodbye to cheap copies of design classics
Anyone hoping to pick up a prize specimen of mid-century-style furniture on the cheap is in for disappointment. In April, the government brought our “industrial design” copyright law, which covers furniture, into line with the EU by repealing section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988, thus raising the copyright lifespan on furniture from 25 years to 70 years after the death of the designer. From July, dealers can no longer import new furniture copies, and once a six-month grace period expires, they won’t be able to sell existing stock.
There’s still a legal “grey” area for pieces “inspired” by design classics, says Rima Sabina Aouf in design magazine Dezeen. But we can say goodbye to seeing ubiquitous knock-off copies of the famous Eames DSW chair. Aldi was recently selling a replica for £39.99 – about a tenth of the £339 cost of an authorised version made by Swiss design brand Vitra. You will have to wait until 2058 before the cheaper versions come back on the market.
The higher prices puts the furniture at odds with the movement’s founding principles – that it be “democratic” and relatively cheap to produce. “The danger as I see it”, design pundit Stephen Bayley told The Independent in February, “is that too costive a view of copyright protection might bring the subject into the ancient realms of rarity, preciousness, attribution, provenance and all the other antique stuff that attends fine art.”
A first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica went under the hammer this week at Christie’s in New York with a guide price of $1m-$1.5m. Intended for the European market, the copy contains a few minor changes compared to its English equivalent. An example of the latter, said to have belonged to King James II, sold for $2.5m in 2013. Its list price was $600,000.
A bejewelled, hand-written copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard (pictured right), a Harry Potter spin-off by JK Rowling, sold for £368,750 at Sotheby’s. The 6,000-word book belonged to publisher Barry Cunningham, who sold it with the author’s blessing and plans to give some of the proceeds to her charity, Lumos. The inscription reads: “To Barry, the man who thought an overlong novel about a boy wizard in glasses might just sell… Thank you.”