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by Brook S. Mason
LONDON -- Everyone knows sleek design is emblematic of our time, but now this capital on the Thames is commanding center stage in the global design world. This year’s Design Festival, Sept. 9-27, 2009, which coincided with Fashion Week, drew upwards of 300,000 visitors, according to festival director Ben Evans.

Grabbing major-league attention is the Royal Academy of Arts Anish Kapoor exhibition. Aside from his vast red wax sculptures that pulsate as they inch slowly across the grand Georgian galleries, his most recent work, Tall Tree and Eye, a series of stacked shiny stainless steel spheres sited in the entrance courtyard, is truly in tune with a new direction in design.

The most dazzling new furniture, like Kapoor’s sculpture, is all about shiny metal. One example can be found at the hip London gallery, Haunch of Venison, which is showcasing new work by Brit Thomas Heatherwick, whose team of architects, designers and production managers are currently fine-tuning the British Pavilion for the Shanghai Expo in 2010. 

On view are Heatherwick’s benches in polished mirror aluminum -- and they are totally seamless. The back, seat and legs are all of one element: a single chunk of aluminum extruded from just one machine. No decorative fittings nor trims. As proof of this dynamic design’s prowess among collectors, they sold out in a nanosecond with price points from £25,000 to £45,000.  In terms of design history, they merit the same attention as examples by Zaha Hadid.

The Decorative
London never sleeps, and next on the agenda was the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair, Sept. 29-Oct. 4, located just across the river in Battersea. This could just be the best antiques bargain-shopping on both sides of the pond. It’s packed to the gills with vetted treasures both high and low from 134 dealers, predominantly British but with a sprinkling of French and Dutch participants.

Unlike some U.S. fairs, the Decorative (as it’s called) is neither exceedingly drafty, dark nor muddy underfoot. This fair covers in excess of 50,000 square feet and is housed within a trim aluminum, single-story structure filled with natural light and carpeted, to boot.

Smack dab in front is a selling exhibition, "The Best of the British," staged by London dealer Alasdair Brown.  He’s flooded the floor with Brit icons, such as a 1990 red Austin Mini, its roof painted to resemble the Union Jack; plus an entire squadron of 19th-century guardsmen uniforms brimming with brass buttons and topped by bear-skin hats; plus pub signs, classic London Underground posters, sofas upholstered in his nation's flag and a set of six Gillows 1840 beech chairs with rush seats. Priced at £5,900, those chairs have to be among the best buys on the fair floor.

This show is for those smitten by the quirky and idiosyncratic, things like, well, kitchenalia. Smithson Antiques is sporting 19th-century farm tables, butcher blocks, porcelain milk pails and spice drawers. "Clients use them as kitchen islands," says Skip Smithson. With one butcher’s block priced at a mere £800, such an antique makes the cost of contemporary pedestrian kitchen cabinets seem sky high.

With those kinds of prices, decorators, savvy collectors and those out to beat the prices of Ikea turn out in droves. Who shows up? Nicky Haslam, Nina Campbell and retail buyers like fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, aiming to trim up his fleet of stores on both sides of the Atlantic.

Amid the dozens of Georgian and French Belle Epoque furniture dealers are six textile specialists, including Molly Hogg. She’s got reams of Ghanian ashante cloaks, Indonesian batiks and French toile de Jouy. Pride of place is given to an early 20th-century Punjab head cover the size of a single bed sheet but in silk embroidery on cotton in shades of pungent orange and magenta. It only costs £500.

Nearby is London textile dealer Joss Graham, who has some alluring ethnography in the shape of hats. For example, he’s showcasing a 1930s Nigerian beaded crown, really a pillbox hat topped by four-footed beaded creatures, one with an "Ollie" face. It’s a rarity and priced at £1,600.

Elsewhere, Artefact is touting an elaborate French 19th-century birdcage of iron wire, zinc and wood in the shape of a grand Napoleon III mansion. Also on the firm’s stand is a reconstituted stone Labrador with brown glass eyes for a reasonable £2,400.

Sales of Georgian and continental painted furniture were booming. The owner of the fair, David Juran of Magus Antiques, sold eight French and Italian painted pieces, from bookcases to cabinets, with prices up to £10,000, and £15,500 for a large pair of Italian 18th-century gilded mirrors.

As for furniture dealer Guy Dennler, who was spotted buying at the fancy LAPADA fair in Berkeley Square this past weekend, his booth practically always sells out. Capturing attention on his stand was a George III mahogany demi-lune table with rosewood banding. The price: only £2,650. Other dealers were featuring 20th-century furnishings and achieving marked sales. That kind of crush of buying tells that the middle market is surprisingly vibrant.

Overall, the Decorative is reminiscent of Olympia in its glory days, when English political cartoons and carved ivory canes could be found among the usual 18th-century English furniture, paintings and miniatures.  Stands here cost a mere £3,500, which aptly explains why many of the Decorative dealers may skip Olympia this June.

Chelsea Antiques Fair
Last weekend, the sweet but indefatigable Caroline Penman opened her Chelsea Antiques Fair, Sept. 23-27, 2009, considered the longest running such event in all of London. It takes place at the Chelsea Town Hall, just steps away from the registry where Beatle Paul McCartney wed decades ago.

Last year, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and sour economy led Penman to cancel her show. But now she has revived that fair and played hostess to 38 dealers to considerable success.

"Five years ago, attendance was three times what it is now," says Penman. Then she reports fair goers were heavily composed of "lookers." Today, she’s seeing a higher percentage of "serious" collectors. Though smallish by some U.S. standards, the Chelsea fair proves that the boutique model is vibrant. Penman has managed to mix 20th-century dealers like Jeroen Markies, who features Art Deco furniture and smart chrome lighting, with specialists carrying 18th- and 19th-century English oak furniture, Georgian silver, blue and white Chinese porcelain along with paintings as well. In fact, on offer is far more than enough for Ralph Lauren to kit out in a single day flat a number of Bedford country houses with his look of cushy WASP taste.

It’s the littles, the tabletop trimmings here that are so tempting.  Take an 1840 English tortoise shell card case for a mere £155 at Simply Antiques. This Gloucestershire specialist has card cases in shagreen, silver, intricately carved Chinese ivory as well as in Indian brass and enamel. That kind of selection says how sometimes a cozy, small fair beats the bigger shows by far.

And a closing. . .
There’s trouble in design land these days. The latest casualty is the London outpost of the mega Manhattan gallery Sebastian + Barquet. Their swank Bruton Place gallery quietly closed last Wednesday due to the lackluster interest in American Modernist designers such as George Nakashima.

Oscar Humphries, director of S+B London, has now joined Timothy Taylor Gallery. He previously was with Partridge, the New Bond Street antiques emporium that has also faded into the sunset. The New York operation of Sebastian + Barquet is continuing with business as usual.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.