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HIGH MODERNISM
by Brook S. Mason
 
Exactly where was Jennifer Aniston this past Thursday evening? Surprise! The celebrity and her posse were spotted at Sandford Smith’s 23rd annual Modernism: A Century of Style and Design fair staged at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, Nov. 14-17, 2008.

Aniston and her ex-husband Brad Pitt had been known as fans of Modernist design, and when the fabled Tinseltown couple split, he snared the prize pieces, including Mark Newson’s emblematic Lockheed lounge of riveted aluminum. Many of the former couple’s favorite dealers are at the Modernism show, such as Peter Loughrey from Los Angeles, who has just bought an entire building to house his auction firm LA Modern.

While conventional wisdom has Smith’s fair as "downmarket" with nary a stellar example on the floor, the exact opposite is closer to the truth. Just as Smith identified the need for a fair dedicated to mid-20th-century wares decades before others, his show continues to set collecting trends and yes, some of his 60 dealers are featuring blockbuster examples.

For those short on time, here’s what not to miss:

Rietveld’s De Stijl doll house
Dutch architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) pioneered the de Stijl esthetic and his shorthand geometric style was right in sync with Piet Mondrian and other painters. With one of Rietveld’s chairs hitting $356,853 at Christie’s New York in May 2007, this period doll house, complete with Rietveld furniture and fixtures, is a real mini-blockbuster.

Although the condition is a tad scruffy, the doll house -- which was designed by Rietveld but built in this country by a carpenter -- is well worth examining close up for the exacting attention to detail: the spines of miniature books are hand painted, the coat rack has wire hangers that reflect his exceedingly spare eye, and the dining table even boasts miniature versions of his iconic Zig Zag chairs. Check out the pocket door; it has to be a first for a dollhouse. At $30,000, this is a gem and well worth every penny the Brooklyn Museum of Art plunked down for the toy home at the vernissage.

Georg Jensen in profusion
Forget Cartier, and Tiffany, too. When it comes to silver, the Copenhagen-based global brand Georg Jensen claims preeminence on the fair floor. While the London-based Silver Fund blazed the trail in offering Jensen silver flatware, hollowware and jewelry at tony art and antiques shows in this country, many other dealers now carry this material. They include Alastair Crawford, Drucker Antiques and Titus Omega at "Modernism 2008."

Back in the 1960s, the Danish modern crowd deemed Jensen the must-have tabletop designer, but by the go-go ‘80s that look lost out to lavish living. Lately, anything Jensen is in demand, as Japanese, European and Russian collectors develop a sudden craving for such accessories. On offer with New York dealer Alastair Crawford, for instance, is a sleek silver bowl formed from a single sheet of silver by the Jensen designer Henning Koppel (1918-1981) in 1958 for $59,000.

Jewelry: the new paintings
Is a growing shortage of modernist furniture pushing dealers to move into jewelry? It stands to reason, as the profit margin is considerable and freight charges rather insignificant. Dealers with jewelry include Mark Macdonald, Liz O’Brien, Catwalk, Modernity and Greg Nanamura, and that’s just in cruising a single fair aisle. "Modernism 2008" holds still more dealers featuring the art of adornment rather than paintings.

The London-based Didier Antiques is now specializing in fine gold art jewelry, touting the most historically important examples from British and American artists, ranging from Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts all the way up to the artists of the 1980s. The firm has all the big art names of the society crowd: Gio Pomodoro, Max Ernst, Arman, Dali.

Connoisseurs are certain to zero in on a Cubist-like sterling and gold cuff dating from the ‘30s by Futurist artist Gino Severini (1883-1966) for $120,000. A pair of 1927 Claude Lalanne cufflinks modeled from actual leaves cost $35,000, and they’re a relative bargain. With Christie’s holding its Yves St. Laurent sale in February 2009, which includes an entire room full of Lalanne mirrors, the prices for that Paris artist-sculptor-designer are bound to skyrocket even higher.

Wright does windows
Like all fairs, this one has dealer turnover and newly joining the roster is Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, a Manhattan painting specialist whose participation confirms the importance of this show on the haute circuit. High points on his stand include an Arthur Dove painting and a set of six Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass windows from the Francis Little House, ca. 1912-1914, in Wayzata, Minn. The windows cost $650,000 and they’re museum quality.

Scandinavian flair
Jacksons of Stockholm, which operates two galleries in the Swedish capital, is one dealer who is always ahead of the market curve (Paul Jackson has just opened a Berlin gallery). Jackson’s opening night sales at Modernism suggest that even in a dire financial climate, money is still rolling in for key design items. Sold were a Mia Goransson white ceramic vase with hand-modeled leaves, a Hans Wegner bench, a Josef Frank table, a Bjorn Wiinblad 12-light brass chandelier and a Henningsen lamp.

Jackson’s also achieved a reserve on an Eva Hild sculpture. No less than Paris and New York interior designer Juan Montoya snared the Goransson vase and a chandelier. Certain to be plucked up by a discriminating collector is a 1960 Hans Wegner Dolphin lounge chair for $125,000. It’s only the second such design by Wegner to ever be on the market. "Last year, I had my best fair ever here," says Paul Jackson, who finds his clients are now focusing on more historically important furnishings.

Mid-century wall power
In terms of two-dimensional offerings, Peter Loughrey has a Victor Vasarely 1970 Aubusson tapestry for a reasonable $49,000. But for eye-popping appeal, Mark Macdonald of Hudson, N.Y., is spotlighting a series of six undulating mosaic panels from the Miami Hotel Caribbean on Collins Avenue. The mosaics in an artichoke flower-like design are glued onto glass and spotlit from behind punching up the turquoise, mustard and burnt orange tesserae. The set of six panels cost $145,000, a reasonable tab for real ‘50s drama.

Choice Zahaiana
Downtown mid-century furniture dealer Todd Merrill is scoring a high point in publicity circles. His new book, Modern Americana: Studio Furniture from High Craft to High Glam, strongly positions him as a reigning expert, Elle Décor magazine is spotlighting his new Greenwich Village townhouse shortly and his gallery is vastly expanded. Further cementing his position in hipster circles, Merrill is the dealer of choice for rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Out in front of his stand at "Modernism 2008" is Zaha Hadid’s undulating biomorphic bench from 2003, made in cast aluminum and pale gray enamel, easily the most stylish perch on the fair floor. At 15 feet long, this working foundry proof (the bench was issued in an edition of 12) was previously owned by Lee Balter, head of the Tallix Art Foundry in upstate Beacon, N.Y., where it was produced, and which was once the largest art foundry in the world. The price is $150,000.

Christopher Dresser icon
Revered as the father of industrial design, Brit designer Christopher Dresser’s silver teapots and toast racks are the darlings of Arts and Crafts as well as Modernist collectors worldwide. Yet his early work rarely hits fairs. On hand at Modernism with Philadelphia dealer John Alexander is Dresser’s seven-and-a-half-foot tall hall console in perforated cast iron from the 1860s, designed to hold hats and umbrellas and with a white marble top. Its black iron ornament is a lacy nod to a Victorian penchant for foliage, but spiked with a stylized sunburst and griffins, reflecting Dresser’s early career as a botanical draftsman. It costs $75,000 and its understated importance underscores the way that this fair can command major league examples.


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



 



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