I recently reviewed this exciting exhibition of Modern Dutch Design at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach thru June 11th.
The Centre Pompidou is presenting “Mutations/Créations“: a new event decidedly turned towards
the future and the interaction between digital technology and creation; a territory shared by art,
innovation and science. Drawing on all the disciplines in a mix of research, art and engineering,
the first edition of this annual event calls upon music, design and architecture. It consists of
two exhibitions (“Imprimer le monde“ and “Ross Lovegrove“), an Art/Innovation Forum entitled
“Vertigo“, and various study days and get-togethers.
Each year, thematic and monographic exhibitions will be staged around meetings and workshops
that turn the Centre Pompidou into an “incubator“: a place for demonstrating prototypes, carrying
out artistic experiments in vivo, and talking with designers. This platform will also be a critical
observatory and a tool for analysing the impact of creation on society. How have the various forms
of creation begun using digital technologies to open up new industrial perspectives? How do they
question the social, economic and political effects of these industrial developments, and their ethical
limits? What formal transformations have come about in music, art, design and architecture with
regard to technical and scientific progress?
Over the course of a long and remarkable academic career, Martin Eidelberg has consistently championed the artistic and historic significance of the decorative arts. In documenting Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s evolution from china decorator to ceramist, all in accord with the desire of the Arts & Crafts Movement to end the division between designer and craftsman (and indeed, between men and women), Dr. Eidelberg has referred to the “moral imperative” which guided her when making each of her pots unique in form and glaze. In surveying the Eidelberg canon, I would argue that this great scholar has followed a similar path. With his repeated inquiries into his favorite subjects—from the art of Watteau to Tiffany’s lamps—Dr. Eidelberg has continually improved our sense of history, through the joys of archival discovery, collaborations with colleagues and students, and old-fashioned connoisseurship in an age of critical theory. The history of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century decorative arts in Europe and America would not be as well-written or fully formed without his contributions.
The present auction of selected works from Martin’s collection, which represents more than fifty years of his pursuit of the nest works “from our native clay,” is also an opportunity to celebrate his career as a friend and mentor to several generations of collectors, historians, dealers and auctioneers. My own history in the design market is intertwined with Martin’s, and I rarely go more than a few days without referring to something that he has written, or guidance that he has given. Nearly twenty-five years ago, when I was enrolled as a graduate student at Rutgers and took a course in French Baroque painting taught by him, I was only dimly aware of his importance in what was to become my professional calling. I had missed by a few years the opportunity to have been a part of the team of Rutgers graduate students and independent researchers assembled by Martin to write the bible of mid-twentieth century design history, What Modern Was, an exhibition catalogue for the Liliane and David Stewart Collection in Montreal, It later served as my introduction to hundreds of mid-century designers, from Aalto to Zeisel.
In the mid-1990s I worked at Christie’s, where Martin enjoyed legendary status as the co-author with Nancy McClelland of several books on Tiffany. There I first discovered From Our Native Clay, an exhibition organized by Martin for the American Ceramics Society and staged at Christie’s in 1987. In 2000, when I was hired by the late Dan Klein, to direct a new department of modern design at Phillips, Martin invited me to dinner with Dan who, I discovered, was one of his oldest friends. At every turn, Martin has been a constant in my life. The authority of his knowledge and experience have continuously benefitted me and many others.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Martin’s scholarship. On one hand, he has been the Vasari of our times, old enough to have interviewed many of the modernist designers themselves! But he has arguably played an even more important, Pevsnerian role in elevating the history of Tiffany Studios and American art pottery to the level of art and architecture. His catalogues and articles have combined meticulous research from primary sources, interviews with direct descendants and, most importantly, the analysis and interpretation of archival material and the works themselves. It also would not be a stretch to call Martin a feminist art historian, as he has devoted a signicant part of his writings to the role played by women. He is credited with the great discovery that Clara Driscoll and “the Tiffany Girls” were in fact responsible for designing Tiffany’s most iconic floral lamp shades. His studies on the work of Robineau, Zeisel, and Leza McVey were equally ground-breaking, and it is befitting that some of their works are included in this sale.
In the world of art pottery, Martin’s publications helped displace the ancient era of collector’s guides. He brought dignity and credibility to a generation of kindred spirits who were collecting and categorizing the ceramics of Grueby, Ohr, Rookwood, Newcomb College and so many others. The layout and style of this very auction catalogue pays not so subtle homage to the granddaddy of all exhibition tomes in this eld, The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916, an event in which he played a major role. For that exhibition he selected and wrote the entries for 140 ceramics. They constituted almost half that show, a critical watershed in the re-assessment of American turn-of-the-century pottery. A number of vases in this sale were actually included in that ground-breaking exhibition more than forty years ago.
This brings us to Martin’s collection itself. Stored for decades on the dusty shelves of his apartment on the Upper West Side, it is an awe-inspiring result of the lifelong passion of the ultimate scholar-collector. He has already donated several works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of the rest is here in this catalogue. The majority of these have been in Martin’s possession for between twenty-five and fifty years. Many have been published and exhibited, and their provenances represent a who’s who of the ceramics market since the 1960s. There is a trove of remarkable Robineau and University City vases acquired from the estate of Edward and Mabel Lewis, founders of University City Pottery, which Martin acquired with the assistance of his good friend Paul Evans, the noted ceramics scholar. There are Ohr pots that were part of the legendary Carpenter cache, which Martin writes about later in this catalogue. There are pieces acquired from Lillian Nassau, the doyenne of Tiffany dealers. And there are a good number of choice works acquired from a fellow named David Rago, who first sold pots to Martin at a Jersey flea market in the 1970s.
It is fitting that while this catalogue was being prepared, Martin was spending his days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working with Nonnie Frelinghuysen on yet another major project, the publication of a monumental catalogue of the ceramics collection of his friend Robert A. Ellison, Jr. Martin’s collecting days may be over, but his scholarship and guidance in the eld continues and will endure.
This wooden tray recently sold at Wright Auction House in Chicago for $ 1750 dollars. It was designed by Russel Wright (1904-1976) one of my all time favorite designers. Russel Wright was a prolific industrial designer who designed houses, furniture, flatware, ceramics including the world famous “American Modern” dinnerware which more than 250 million pieces were made. Less well known and equally great, were a series of handmade woodenware manufactured by Klise Wood Working Company that are rare and quite elegant. I have always loved his design sense, especially his woodenware.
There were many beautiful ceramics made by Georges Jouve sold by Sothebys Paris on May 24th. Prices were between $ 4,000 to almost $ 40,000 dollars.
Georges Jouve is an important ceramist of the 20th century. He was born in 1910 in Fontenay-sous-Bois and his parents were both decorators. At 17 years old, Jouve enrolled at the prestigious Ecole Boulle in Paris where he received theoretical instruction in Art History in addition to his technical studies as a sculptor. In 1944, he opened his studio in Paris and was invited by Jacques Adnet to participate in the exhibition “La Ceramique Contemporaine” by the Compagnie des Arts Francais. He then participated annually in numerous ‘Salons’ in France and internationally such as the “Salon des Artistes Decorateurs” in Paris, Association Francaise d’Action Artistique in Rio de Janeiro, and Vienna, Toronto, Rome, Milan, and Cairo.
Joris Laarman Bone Chair
Shiro Kuramata Feather Stool
World Record prices on many design pieces were realized last night and this afternoon at Phillips Auction House in London-pieces including these two chairs which are some of my favorites, the Laarman Bone Chair sold for $ 500,000 dollars and the Kuramata Feather stool selling for $ 105,000 dollars.
When “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1975–1990” opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in September of 2011, David Bowie was among the privileged few given a private tour. His response was reportedly to acquire a huge collection of postmodern objects. Although it’s unlikely that many visitors responded quite so enthusiastically, the exhibition did call attention to a style that had been largely ignored for decades. Since then, interest has been building, with sources in the design world predicting a comeback for the style that was marked by equal parts hype and controversy during its ’80s heyday. Last July’s proclamation by the online design-industry journal Dezeen that, “Love it or hate it, postmodernism is back,” may have seemed a bit premature, but as the media took notice, headlines proliferated hailing the movement’s return.
Now, all signs suggest those predictions were right on target. The movement’s iconic objects—such as Ettore Sottsass’s Carlton bookcase and Michael Graves’s Whistling Bird teakettle—make regular appearances in the media as well as at 20th-century design sales. A Carlton brought $17,500 on a $6,000-to-$8,000 estimate at Phillips in New York last December, while Sottsass’s Murmansk silver cup sold for £8,750 ($13,300) at Sotheby’s London in November. According to Keith Johnson, who has been a distributor of Memphis design since 1981 and currently shows the group’s designers at his Brooklyn gallery, Urban Architecture, sales have tripled in the past several years.
From a timing perspective, the revival is right on cue: Styles generally resurface on a three-decade cycle. But postmodernism is more than just another design approach. Evolving from a 19th-century philosophy that influenced art and literature, postmodernism surfaced in architecture and design with Robert Venturi’s 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and was defined as gospel with the 1977 publication of Charles Jencks’s Language of Postmodern Architecture, a manifesto protesting the constraints and sterility of then-dominant International Style modernism. On the popular side, however, postmodernism can be summed up in a single word: Memphis. Although architectural incarnations such as Graves’s Portland Building in Oregon and Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-topped AT&T Building (now the Sony Tower) in New York generated heated discussion, it was the spectacle of Memphis objects that catapulted postmodern design into the public eye.
Organized in Milan by Ettore Sottsass and a cohort of young architects and designers distressed by the dearth of originality in the contemporary design of the postwar years, Memphis sought to offer more avant-garde options. The result was a no-holds-barred collection of furniture, lighting, and accessories unlike anything the market had ever seen or imagined. Its debut at the 1981 Salone del Mobile in Milan generated media coverage that cast design in a limelight previously reserved for film and fashion. In a market dominated by sleek Scandinavian and pristine Bauhaus objects, Memphis was a refreshingly irreverent change of pace.
While the name is used by some as a loose synonym for postmodernism, and sometimes refers to the firm that purchased the name and continues to produce the designs, the original Memphis collective lasted for just eight years, joining Italian members like Andrea Branzi, Michele de Lucchi, and Alessandro Mendini with an international roster including Graves, Hans Hollein, Shiro Kuramata, and Peter Shire. Sottsass and his colleagues sought to approach design without the restrictions of functionalism or any predetermined rules. Notwithstanding the serious ideas behind the objects, the Memphis designers’ transgressive use of quotidian materials, clashing color and pattern, and bizarrely functionless forms were an in-your-face challenge to accepted concepts of good design—and good taste. The Carlton bookcase epitomized the collective’s use of colorful laminates, Pop graphics, and unconventional form. Design arbiter Bertrand Pellegrin described the design as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price” in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012.
Most of the Memphis pieces were made in limited numbers. Priced from $2,000 to $10,000, they were too costly even for interested buyers. (Even costlier, Graves’s Plaza dressing table was priced at $33,000 when it debuted in 1981 at New York’s Furniture of the 20th Century showroom, the first U.S. distributor of Memphis.) But the objects were, in any case, intended to make a point, not a profit.
Accordingly, there were few who didn’t have an opinion about Memphis, much of it negative. Critics had a field day, but others admired its freewheeling attitude, recognizing the substance beneath the flippant façade. “I believe the postmodern style is historically significant,” says Miami collector Al Eiber, an early fan of the movement. “It’s a complete reversal from less is more.” Fashion leaders were intrigued; couturier Karl Lagerfeld famously furnished his Monte Carlo apartment entirely in Memphis. For most people, however, the problem was figuring out how individual pieces—specifically seating and tables—fit into a unified interior. “Furniture requires commitment,” says Carina Villinger, head of 20th- and 21st-century design at Christie’s New York. “You can always use another vase, but you only need one sofa.” Alex Heminway, design director of Phillips New York, puts it more pointedly: “Postmodern design has never been easy to live with. Most clients, at the end of a long day and behind closed doors, want their chairs to converse with them rather than shout.”
Although the most promoted, Memphis was not the only part of the story, as many members of the collective also designed for manufacturers that introduced pieces as part of their lines. Italian powerhouses Cassina and Poltronova offered postmodern furniture, and Robert Venturi designed a collection of chairs for Knoll that riffed on classic period styles.
More visibly and accessibly, postmodern design found expression in tableware and accessories. The design of attention-getting postmodern buildings had made architecture a newsworthy topic and turned its leading practitioners into celebrities, fostering the emergence of the starchitect. Savvy manufacturers, most notably Alessi, Cleto Munari, and Swid Powell, commissioned marquee names to design products. Alessi’s Coffee and Tea Piazza project of 1983, introducing 11 sterling silver services, by an international roster of architects, priced in the five-figure range, was a succès d’estime, bringing cachet but few sales. But Graves’s bird teakettle, also designed for Alessi, in 1985, was reported in the New York Times in 1988 to have sold some 100,000 units at $115 each. Graves’s own knockoff of the object was also heavily used in advertising for Target as the retailer rebranded its image from low-end outlet store to a source of good design at popular prices.
The postmodernist love affair, such as it was, was relatively brief, and the style was moribund by the end of the 1980s, the victim of overexposure and kitschy knockoffs. Sottsass left Memphis in 1985, and the collective disbanded in 1988. The famed Lagerfeld collection went on the block at Sotheby’s in 1991. Despite its relatively short life, however, the influence of Memphis and other postmodern design ventures was enormous—and enduring. In opening the door to unfettered expression, it permanently expanded the possibilities for original design. “It opened the floodgates and once again allowed designers to use historical forms as well as exuberant ornament, pattern, color, and materials,” says curator R. Craig Miller, formerly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “More importantly, it established a new conceptual basis for design where objects were no longer thought of primarily as functional products but also as works of art.”
Such assessments bode well for postmodern design as it undergoes an art historical reassessment. On the secondary market, however, it remains a tricky category. It’s comparable neither to the iconoclastic works that straddle the line between art and design and bring six-figure prices just a few years out of the studio, nor to the handcrafted treasures of past eras like Art Deco. Somewhat anachronistic, the pieces are too new to be antique and too quirky and heavily marketed to be revered as art. But the auction houses are finding interest in the top names: Sottsass, Graves, De Lucchi, Mendini, and Kuramata.
“Collectors will pay important prices for small-edition or iconic objects,” says Florent Jeanniard, 20th-century design director at Sotheby’s Paris, who points out that Kuramata’s 1989 Placebo table fetched £21,250 ($32,782), more than double its low estimate, at Sotheby’s London last November. The designer’s celebrated Miss Blanche chair of the same years brought a world-record £269,000 ($413,829) in the same sale. And a rare sighting of Masanori Umeda’s Tarawaya boxing ring sofa brought $34,800 at Christie’s New York in 2005.
Other postmodern designs, most often from Memphis affiliated names, are gaining market momentum: A Sottsass Totem ceramic piece sold for €62,500 ($77,375) at Dorotheum in Vienna in 2014, and a De Lucchi Sebastopol table brought $10,625 at Bonhams Los Angeles last October. Glass and ceramic objects sell for more modest prices, in the low five figures. They are considered to be a good buy, as are Robert Venturi’s witty chairs, which can be found on the site for about $7,500 each.
All this activity cannot be credited to just one museum program. The 2011 V&A show’s most immediate impact could be seen in growing interest in the dormant style among curators. Subsequent exhibitions have highlighted the Memphis group or earlier avant-garde designers, and recent years have seen postmodernism-related shows as far afield as South Africa, which showcased “Totemism: Memphis Meets Africa” at Design Indaba Expo in Cape Town in 2013; Turkey, where “Global Tools, 1973–1975” appeared at Salt Istanbul in 2014; and Helsinki, where the Design Museum Finland mounted “Postmodernism, 1980–1995” last year. In the U.S., “Memphis-Milano, 1980s Italian Design,” was presented at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis in 2014.
At the same time, galleries began cultivating a new collecting community. “The collector base has broadened over the past few years,” says Chicago and New York auctioneer Richard Wright. “The ’80s aesthetic is coming back for serious reconsideration.” Buyers of postmodern objects tend to be connoisseurs rather than investors. Interior designers, with rare exceptions like color-loving Kelly Wearstler, are generally resistant.
“The objects and furniture are very domineering,” says Friedman Benda principal Marc Benda, who mounted a show on Sottsass in 2014 and another last year. “Design aficionados are more adventurous in integrating pieces into their environments, and art collectors tend to hunt down the icons of the period.” Millennials, however, are taking notice. Johnson of Urban Architecture reports he has clients who weren’t born when the style surfaced, but “relate to it what they see in old MTV videos or reruns of Miami Vice.” Koenig & Clinton owner Margaret Clinton says that many visitors to the New York gallery’s Memphis exhibition in late 2014 and early 2015 had never seen the original objects in person, “or certainly not that many gathered in a single room.”
One challenge to the collectibility of the movement’s objects is that many of the pieces are still in production, keeping prices in check. Interestingly, a Mendini Proust chair, still being sold for Cassina and retailing for around $13,000, sold for £46,850 ($64,300) at Bonhams Knightsbridge just after the V&A postmodernism show opened; a vintage example was offered recently on 1st Dibs for $25,000. A new Carlton is listed for €12,822 ($14,255) in the Memphis-Milano online store. As longtime collector Dennis Zarone, whose collection was the basis for the Dixon Gallery and Garden exhibition, notes, “The prices aren’t much different from those in the original catalogs.” There are still bargains to be had, but that’s likely to change.
As with any unusual design, buyers often rely on a knowledgeable dealer. “You need knowledge, passion, and patience to find the right works and to be able to represent properly what it is you are selling,” says Benda. It seems reasonable to predict that postmodern designs, like those of once-derided Art Deco, will become the valued antiques of the next generation. In a very real sense, we have postmodernism to thank for the diversity of today’s style choices and for the idea that design doesn’t always have to be taken seriously. In that sense, the new wave of postmodernism isn’t really a revival; it’s just been waiting in the wings for a return to center stage.
Pierre Berge and Associates is having a very interesting Scandinavian furniture auction on Sunday April 24th in Brussels, Belgium.
My favorite lot is this dining room set designed by Tapio Wirkkala in 1958. This Finnish designer and sculptor was a major figure of post war design. I am especially fond of his work with plywood; this being an exquisite example. Check out the entire auction @ pba-auctions.com/
A Benefit Auction for the Design Museum London will be held at Phillips Auction House on April 28th, 2016. Proceeds from the sale will go entirely to benefit the new building opening this fall at the Design Museum. Some of my favorite lots include these. Check out the entire auction on the Phillips Auction Site (phillips.com).