Going, Going ... pix
Gone to the auction house, where designers are heating up the market for 20th-century furniture
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 9/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
A 1968 Luigi Colani chaise that architect Lee Mindel bought in May from Phillips de Pury & Company.
Carl Bergsten armchairs, circa 1930, bought by Darren Henault at Sotheby's last December.
Bergsten furniture studies in pencil on paper, sold at the December auction to another designer.
The Tom Dixon table that Nan Lee bought at Phillips in May.
A Kem Weber armchair from the 1930's, purchased by a designer at Sotheby's in June.
For yesterday's interior designer, shopping for modern furnishings at auction was tantamount to scrounging in a seedy secondhand shop. But with the turn of the 21st century, 20th-century objects gained status. And the category has been steadily gaining cachet since 2001, when James Zemaitis, now a senior vice president at Sotheby's, began using glossy catalogs and stylish previews to turn design sales into must-go events at his previous place of employment, Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. The semiannual sales at Sotheby's, Christie's, and the house now called Phillips de Pury & Company have become valuable sources for designers shopping on behalf of their clients.
What do auctions offer that dealers may not? More choice, to start with: several hundred lots of furniture and accessories in a variety of styles, in one spot, on one day. An auction may also be the place to find that perfect item that hasn't turned up anywhere else, consigned by its original owners or their estate.
Stephen Shadley often relies on the auctions for what he calls "taste" pieces by, say, Edward Wormley or George Nakashima. And the three major New York houses have responded to demand by breaking down their 20th-century sales into such designer-friendly categories as Mid-Century American, Italian, and Scandinavian and even Contemporary Art Furniture.
Lee Mindel, who regularly follows the important modern sales, views them as educational tools. "At Shelton, Mindel & Associates, we use the catalogs as sources of information. And the combination of documentation on an object plus experiencing it in person—there's no substitute for that." On a less lofty level, Ernest de la Torre cites the House Sales at Christie's as a good source for pieces with character but not necessarily pedigree. Darren Henault says he enjoys the unexpected: "Sometimes you get exactly what you're there for. Sometimes you don't know what you're going to come up with."
Understandably, the auction houses welcome designers, whether they're purchasing on behalf of clients, accompanying clients to a sale, or simply making recommendations and letting the clients do the buying solo. "Some clients love the sport of auctions," Henault says. "They want to hold the paddle and bid—occasionally you have to restrain them." Meanwhile, the anonymity of bidding by telephone or online may appeal to clients who prefer to reveal neither how much they spend nor that they need help in making their selections.
In each of these scenarios, Phillips modern and contemporary specialist Marcus Tremonto says, "The designer world is creating a lot of strong prices." That's partially because dealers, needing leeway for a markup of 50 to 200 percent, will stop bidding at a point well below a designer representing a deep-pocketed client who's carried away by the fever of competition.
It was Henault, for example, who bought a pair of Carl Bergsten armchairs, circa 1930, from the Collection of Barry Friedman sale at Sotheby's in December. Estimated at $8,000 to $12,000, they sold for $26,400. The catalog for the June sale at Sotheby's listed a high estimate of $7,000 for a 1930's Kem Weber armchair that eventually went to another designer for $20,400. "I've seen pieces sell at auction, in poor condition, for more than the same piece, pristine, on my floor," notes dealer Evan Lobel, owner of Lobel Modern.
As Albert Hadley says, "I don't think there are bargains anywhere anymore." However, Jeffrey Bilhuber insists, "You don't buy a piece for a bargain. You buy it because you love it." For Thad Hayes, going to an auction is also "a bit of an event."
Although dealers might be expected to resent the designer intrusion into a market that was once their exclusive province, that doesn't seem to be the case. "Designers aren't taking away business from me—all of our good sales are to designers," Alan Moss says, adding that designers may go to auction for inexpensive pieces that he or other high-end dealers don't handle.
Pioneering modernist dealer Mark McDonald observes, "Designers are pushing up prices, but they're also bringing in a new type of buyer." Paul Donzella agrees: "In a way, it takes away from our business, but the flip side is that more designers and the public are buying mid-century pieces. The pie is getting bigger, and there's enough for everybody."