Gothamites, take note of the latest shift in the art world. London, not New York, is the capital of 20th-century design. What's the evidence? To begin with, consider the auction houses. Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips and Bonhams all hold auctions devoted to the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Vernon Panton and Hans Wegner.
"We began selling 20th-century furnishings by masters back in 1993," says Simon Andrews, head of modern design at Christie's. Three years later, Christie's South Kensington branch began conducting sales dedicated exclusively to that area. Today, the house holds four different sales, including Modernism as well as Italian, Scandinavian and modern design. Andrews' sales routinely score world-record prices.
In New York, both Sotheby's and Christie's have completely missed the boat in this area. The two auctioneers schedule no such sales. Last year, Doyle entered the fray belatedly with a 20th-century art and design auction, held twice annually. Tepper Galleries quickly followed suit.
It's true that Manhattan's SoHo is packed with dealers promoting all manner of Modernist design, but London originated the specialty. For instance, Scenes & Variations was founded back in 1984, and now restocks every ten days. Twentytwentyone is another hot gallery in London, featuring top-line European, American and Scandinavian design.
Furthermore, the range of the London market is very sophisticated vis a vis the States. Italian designers like Ettore Sottsass and Gaetano Pesce are commonplace and Scandinavian design by Finn Juhl, Poul Henningsen and the late Panton (which few Americans even know) are frequently requested. Of course, British designers like Gerald Summers are prominent.
Panton, a celebrated Danish designer, propounded the notion of single-color interiors. In addition, he is credited with being the first person to design a chair shaped and molded from a single piece of plastic, now termed the Panton chair. Today, the chair is an icon. Right now, London's Designmuseum is featuring a comprehensive show of his work, "Verner Panton: Light and Color." More Panton can be seen at Habitat, both the Tottenham Court Road and the King's Road stores, where gallery Twentytwentyone is showcasing its collection.
What's driving this craze? "We're close to the Continent so accessibility to furniture is no problem," points out Twentytwentyone owner Tony Cunningham. That means countless 20- and 30-somethings have long been exposed to work by the pioneers of European modern design.
Another reason icons of 20th-century design have far greater visibility in London is the plethora of magazines dedicated to covering the specialty, like Blueprint and Wallpaper.
Interestingly, the client base in the auction houses and for dealers like Tony Cunningham is not totally English. Half are Americans and Europeans, reports Cunningham. According to Christie's Andrews, Americans snapped up a stunning 60 percent of the Alvar Aalto pieces under the hammer at his March sale.
A glance at the prices achieved in that sale confirms just how strong the market is here. An Aalto laminated beech and plywood lounge chair from 1931 scored $44,160. It's an early production model, one used in furnishing the Paimio Sanatorium. Plus a pair of 1931 Mies van der Rohe nickel plated tubular steel chairs, sometimes called bicycle handlebar furniture, made $25,760.
Christie's Scandinavian Design sale in South Kensington on Sept. 15 sold 170 of the 268 lots (63 percent) for a total of over $402,000. One of the sale's most striking lots was Poul Henningsen's steel, wood and perspex piano. Although dating from 1931, the piano with its chrome frame looks like pure punk rock. It was estimated at $44,800-$57,600, but failed to sell.
Some other interesting pieces include a 1951 glass vase by Finish designer Timo Sarpaneva, which sold for $17,108 (est. around $13,300-$20,000), and a grey Arabesk Lounge Suite designed by Swede Folke Jansson in 1955, which sold for $11,785 (est. $6,600-$9,900).
American visitors to London can't expect bargains, even though the pound is down. London prices match those in New York. In fact, reports Andrews, prices in the sales rooms have tripled in a scant several years. At Twentytwentyone in Islington, the iconic Eames storage unit is priced at $13,600. In the early '80s, this piece was tagged at a lowly $1,000.
"The demand for top design pieces from Scandinavia and America is fierce," concludes Cunningham.
For visitors to London who want to learn more about more about masters of 20th century design, consider taking in the exhibition "Verner Panton: Light and Colour," at the Designmuseum, Shad Thames, London (to Oct. 10). For galleries, hit Twentytwentyone, 274 Upper Street and 18C River Street, London, and Scenes & Variations, 231 Westbourne Grove, London.
The rest of us can pick up Verner Panton (Basler Zertung, Basel, 1998), $21.60. A great sourcebook for Scandinavian design is Design Directory: Scandinavia (Paola Antonelli, Universe) $24.95. Another good publication is the new The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention by Donald Albrecht (Abrams), $49.50.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques from New York.