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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|If you believe that only museums hold the real rarities of the art world, think again. While much of the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition, "American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age," is safely tucked behind glass with the requisite museum labels, examples of practically all of those choice items can be found for sale in galleries right now. The show features the design esthetic pioneered in the period between the world wars -- and some of its items are surprisingly humble.
For the star of the survey, head to Mark McDonald's Gansevoort Gallery, which is located in Manhattan's meat packing district. He's got the great American treasure, Gilbert Rohde's 1938 plastic chair, the first ever made from Plexiglas. Rimmed in steel, with a strikingly sensuous line and a shimmering dust blue color, this handmade prototype is one of pair, the other being a promised gift to the Met and of course featured in the show. The price -- $75,000 -- speaks of its landmark status and how far this field has come in a short period of time.
The chair was discovered in a Queens attic, one with the pedigree of the designer's sister-in-law, no less. Never put into production (with the advent of World War II, the federal government co-opted all Plexiglas for bomber planes windshields), the chair is bound to be snapped up by an institution.
Gansevoort recently sold a Paul Frankl bookcase in the famed skyscraper style inspired by the megabuildings of the period. Repainted during the 1980s, the bookcase was priced at $3,500. Larger examples by the Viennese-born designer go for $30,000-$40,000 when they are available, according to Gansevoort gallery manager Scott Vanderhamm.
In the gallery window is a George Sakier vase from 1928, its vertical lines once again recalling skyscraper lines.
Modernism got hot even before the Met show. "Gansevoort's client list has tripled in five years," says Vanderhamm.
Uptown, the 61st Street gallery Historical Design is the source for a bevy of iconic items. Dealer Daniel Morris has rounded up furniture, silver, radios, cameras and even lamps by such leading designers as Kem Weber, Walter Dorwin Teague and Clarence Karlstadt. Many of these figures can be found in not only the Met catalogue but also one from the Brooklyn Museum of Art's 1986 "Machine Age in America" exhibition.
Morris' holdings provide a strong demonstration of the period's design emphasis on streamlining. Take Karl Emanuel Martin Weber's "Airline" armchair, ca. 1934. It's got a hip aero-dynamic frame. Then there's the Walter Dorwin Teague 1939 desk lamp with its sleek helmet-like shade.
Even though pieces like the lamp were produced en masse, the number available today is finite. "Few are in good condition; most are chipped," points out Morris. The lamp is $4,500.
Kartstadt's "Silvertone" radio of 1938 with its fierce turbine shape is in sharp contrast to a 1946 deco example in Bakelite gold with crimson trim. Period radios are now frequently sold even in the tony Park Avenue Armory show.
With the Met's exhibition now traveling onto several more museums (including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte), the collector base for these objects is sure to grow.
"The show will elevate the stature of American material, and we will see prices for rarities rise in the salesrooms," says Lars Rachen, Christie's 20th-century decorative arts specialist. While the American examples will probably never reach the heights of prices for French material, this area will attract a band of new collectors and spawn new dealers.
To see just how commonplace items from the period can be elevated in the decorative arts market, head to Mood Indigo in Soho. Boxes of common kitchen utensils with Bakelite handles, like the ones at the Met, are on display. The price for a spatula, the kind that can be picked up in countless flea markets and church rummage sales? A hefty $68!
Clearly, the market is reacting with its own special sense of connoisseurship. But then the Met has conferred its gilt-edged seal of "culture" on this entire area. Who would have thought mass-market kitchen spoons could be boldly priced so very quickly.
In addition to Bakelite, Mood Indigo dealer Diane Petipas has all but cornered the market on Russel Wright ceramics. Pieces run from a mere $8 for a saucer right up to $350 for a Rosette (the ubiquitous snack accessory; it holds crackers and a dip).
Wright's prices are dependent on the color. So the common hues of coral, granite gray and chartreuse are $12, while the seafoam blue is $22 and cantalope is $38. Wright has developed a real cult following and Petipas is selling up a storm. The profile of the buyer? "They're over 60 and sometimes under 20 in age," she says.
If your pocketbook prevents you from snapping up skyscraper Frankel pieces, head to Donzella in Tribeca. There dealer Robert Cowen has got a number of later examples. A 1945 bookcase with a pagoda top is $11,500. A small 1946 side table, its surface formed into the shape of a cloud, is $2,400. "Designers from David Kleinberg and Haines Roberts shop here regularly," says Cowen. That's another sign of the emergence of this area.
Historical Design, 306 East 61st Street, New York, N.Y. 10021, (212) 593-4528.
Mood Indigo, 181 Prince Street, New York, N.Y. 10012, (212) 254-1176.
Donzella, 17 White Street, New York, N.Y. 10013 (212) 965-8919.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques.