"Modernism, a Century of Art and Design, 1890-1990," Nov. 13-17, 2002, at the Seventh Regiment Armory, 67th and Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
The place to be last weekend was at Sanford Smith's 17th annual Modernism fair at the Park Avenue armory in New York. The historic hall was elegantly trapped out, and the almost 70 exhibitors from Europe and the U.S. filled their booths with choice examples of 20th-century furnishings, works that ranged from Tiffany and Art Nouveau to contemporary design of the Pop era. Speaking of pop, among the celebrities doing a little shopping were Calvin Klein, Bette Midler, Yoko Ono and Valentino; art-world visitors included Dia Foundation progenitor Heiner Friedrich and Interview editor Ingrid Sischy and publisher Sandy Brant.
The fair's gala preview benefited the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and as part of the festivities the museum conferred Modernism Lifetime Achievement Awards on the German-born furniture designer Vladimir Kagan and the founding editor of Wallpaper magazine, Tyler Brûlé.
Needless to say, the fair is especially rich in examples of reductive, modernist design. The booth of Dansk Møbel Kunst from Copenhagen, for instance, is furnished with Scandinavian design from the 1930s to the '50s, featuring pieces by Kaare Klint and Jacob Kjaer as well as Arne Jacobsen. One rare item was a 1948 easy chair with ottoman by Boerge Mogensen, mounted on oak sleds rather than legs and upholstered in an attractive khaki fabric. The unusual design was hand-made early in Mogensen's career, and so had limited production; the price is $25,000. Mogensen has been covered in Wallpaper but his work has not been shown in New York. Dansk Møbel Kunst has opened a second store in Paris in the St. Germain district.
Other dealers take an approach that has pronounced pop-culture connotations. Lin-Weinberg 20th Century Design, which has had a shop on Wooster Street in SoHo for eight years, did up its booth with furnishings from the '50s that looked like they could have been transported from a Hollywood film of the period. "We plan a theme each year," said Andy Lin, "and collect for six to eight months." Among the finds are a ca. 1951 Gio Ponti polished wood wall cabinet in perfect condition and a pair of sofas and glass-topped coffee table designed by Ernst Schwadron.
How are sales? On the final day of the fair, the dealers seemed quite cheerful. "Business is great," said James Elkind of Lost City Arts of New York. "We've turned over the entire booth." Still on hand were a pair of Warren McArthur chairs with machined aluminum rather than chrome and the original oilcloth upholstery ($3,500) and decorative allegorical plaques in cast aluminum representing "Art" and "Music" from the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, done in 1930 ($25,000 each). The hotel site is currently occupied by the Trump Parc.
At the Converso-Kaufman booth is a Usonian chair designed in 1949 for Frank Lloyd Wright's Robert D. Winn House in Kalamazoo. Done in walnut with the original upholstery, the piece is tagged at $8,400. "It's a Los Angeles price I've brought with me to New York," said Sam Kaufman, whose gallery is in the Modernism District on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. "I think that Wright, late in his career, was giving a compliment to one of his most famous students, Rudolph Schindler, for his flat planes and simple construction. The chair was in the collection of Michael and Gabrielle Boyd, whose collection was shown at the San Francisco MoMA in 1999 in "Sitting on the Edge."
Another standout at the fair was an oak and aluminum Jean Prouvé prototype bookshelf for la Maison du Mexic, the former Spanish student dorm in Paris, ca. 1953, at the booth of Hugues Magen, a New York dealer whose showroom at 25 Fifth Avenue is open by appointment. The piece carries a $75,000 price tag. Magen was also showcasing a selection of rough-hewn pottery from the 1940s made in La Borne, the celebrated pottery center about two hours southeast of Paris.
At Galerie Ulrich Fiedler from Cologne were two stellar chairs by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, a Zig Zag Chair from 1934, of elm wood, and a Beugel Chair from 1927, with its single bent tubular section and the dark-stained wood laminate surface -- both bearing a particularly attractive patina of use. The prices were $16,000 and $58,000, respectively. Fiedler noted that many of the buyers were American museums. "Buy a chair like this, you buy an idea," he said, "not a comfortable decorative piece."
Fiedler pointed out that it's becoming increasingly common for museums to install modernist artworks in suites with furnishings from the same period. Though integrated installations are common in colonial and other period rooms, most U.S. museums seem to feel that modernist works make an overpowering statement on their own. But in Europe the practice is more common, at both the Neue Pinakotek in Munich, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for instance.
As a complement to his classic Bauhaus furniture, Fiedler has three block-printed postcards by Andreas Feininger and other Bauhaus artists that were originally issued in 1923 to promote the first Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar. The price range for these gem-like works is $3,000 to $6,000. At the booth of JMW Gallery from Boston, the collection of simple and strong Arts & Crafts and Stickley furniture is complemented with Marblehead Pottery vases (1904-36) and color block prints from the turn of the century (which are $3,400-$9,000).
The Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, which specializes in Art Deco pieces, with their heavier, sleeker look and darker finishes, has lined its walls with framed, hand-painted gouache "cartoons" for wallpaper designs from the 1940s. The motifs are precisely painted, and look very fresh -- the anonymous artist's controlled hand is quite evident. These works are priced at $3,500. Moderne, which opened in 1984, is also a leading dealer in furniture by George Nakashima, and a section of their booth is given over to his carefully crafted pieces.
The fair has no shortage of smaller, accent pieces that make a statement larger than their size. The booth of Mark McDonald/330 from Hudson, N.Y., was lined with shelves filled with mid-century ceramics and decorative arts by John Foster, Salvatore Fiume and the influential Cranbrook teacher Maya Grotell.
In the case at Moderni from Key Biscayne was a pair of delicate dishes made of plywood by Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala. Highly finished so the wood plies create a pattern of concentric rings, the two works date from the early '50s and are priced at $5,700 and $6,900. Wirkkala was an industrial designer who made piece in glass and ceramic as well as wood. A touring exhibition of his works is now in Mexico.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.
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