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by Brook S. Mason
"Modernism: A Century of Style & Design, 1900-2000," Nov. 17-20, 2006, at the Seventh Regiment Armory, 643 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

How to measure the fervor for Modernism, the catchall category that now encompasses a range of 20th-century furniture, design and graphic arts that can be both highly styled and wildly kitschy? Well, a slew of sales at last week’s "Modernism: A Century of Style & Design, 1900-2000," organized by Sanford Smith and now celebrating its 21st birthday, demonstrates the degree to which this specialty is in favor.

First off, Harry Bertoia’s sculptures are the new must-haves, with the downtown Manhattan gallery Lost City Arts racking up sales of just over 25 examples by the Pennsylvania sculptor, furniture and jewelry designer. Among the sold items is an enormous Bertoia "gong" sculpture, towering over seven feet high, for $180,000, and a staggering 23 decorative table-top plaques, made of coated brass, at $2,400 each.

Scads of fairgoers admiringly took in Bertoia’s 1970 Willow, his lyrical interpretation of the billowing tree done in the thinnest of copper tapers, priced at $120,000. When touched, its "branches" rustle like the wind.

Lately, Bertoia’s tonal sculptures have been climbing the auction price charts, both in New York as well as at Wright, the Chicago-based salesroom. Why the rush for the sculptor who infused his metal pieces with sound? "During the 1960s, art and rock and roll was really about startling the senses," says Jim Elkind, who heads up Lost City Arts. "Now people are looking for work that is harmonious and refers to nature." And Bertoia fits that bill to perfection.

Danish Modern furniture was also selling up a storm. The Dallas-based shop Collage 20th Century Classics quickly sold a set of Hans Wegner chairs, and Moderne Gallery from Philadelphia witnessed a bevy of purchases of George Nakashima furniture.

But buoyant sales didn’t always mark this area. Back in 1986, the extraordinarily prescient fair organizer Sandy Smith launched the first fair ever dedicated to modernism, and the rest, as they say, is history. But 20 years ago, that stylistic term was hardly part of the vocabulary of the public at large. Bertoia’s work had fallen into obscurity, and Nakashima furniture hadn’t begun to strut its record prices at the auction houses. The sometimes erotic but always witty boxes and twinkling mirrors by Line Vautrin, the Paris poetess of metallurgy, were coveted by only by the French (though admittedly her collectors included the celluloid starlet Brigitte Bardot and decorator Francois Catroux).

What a difference two decades makes. Now, "Modernism: A Century of Style & Design, 1900-2000" is a treasure trove of iconic 20th-century styles, favored by the social elite and designers of all sorts. Trolling the floors during the fair’s vernissage were Brooklyn Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman, socialite collector Beth Rudin de Woody; designers Thad Hayes and Ellie Cullman, and Nan Swid of Knoll fame.

What’s on view here speaks of new style trends. For example, Manhattan dealer Liz O’Brien is trumpeting furnishings and decorative arts originally showcased by the legendary decorator Frances Elkins (sister of the famed Chicago architect David Adler). Ensconced within the O'Brien stand is a diminutive 1934 table in lacquered silver commissioned by Elkins and a pair of Venini glass obelisks, swirls of Venetian glass priced at $20,000. Right now, decorator furniture is considered de rigueur by style setters.

Nearby the London firm Titus Omega is sporting the early silver of Liberty’s. Back in 1900, Liberty’s was the Tiffany of the day, an emporium that pioneered the now-common practice of marketing oneself as a luxury brand. That London department store spotlighted contemporary silver, which today makes the Art Deco history books. Among the museum-class examples on view are a 1902 Liberty table clock with a turquoise enamel decoration, priced at $45,000, and a pair of small silver Liberty candlesticks, at a bargain price of $2,500.

Then the West Palm Beach 21/20 gallery, a new fair entrant, has a Droog chair, which is really a bundle of fabrics tied up with thin ribbons of metal, and a Marcel Wanders "Knotted Chair" in red Carbon and epoxy-coated aramid fibers. The Wanders chair costs a mere $5,750. The Museum of Modern Art has one, though in the more pedestrian color of twine.

Dealer Mark MacDonald from Hudson, N.Y., quickly sold off a pair of superlative Warren MacArthur chairs in aluminum. Still on offer were a pair of MacArthur floor lamps in wrought iron and the design paid homage to Frank Lloyd Wright in their geometry. Also on display was still more furniture by the contemporary Dutch design collective Droog, such as a 1991 assemblage of dresser drawers amassed in a helter-skelter manner, entitled You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories. With the Museum of Art & Design recently playing host to an exhibition devoted to Droog and a bevy of museums like the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh snaring its work, Droog is practically the Chippendale of our age.

Further along the aisles is Wayne Schwartz, a collector and dealer from Amagansett, Long Island, who unquestionably has the largest holdings of work by Line Vautrin in the nation. Scoot back a decade and her gilt bronze boxes and glass and Talosel mirrors cost very little, if they could be found here. Now, collectors of Vautrin include Madonna, fashion designer Marc Jacobs and Lee Radziwill. The mirrors cost $25,000-$175,000; the boxes hover in the $3,000 range and up, while the jewelry ranges from $3,000-$10,000.

A cunning Vautrin paperweight, entitled Jalousie, first looks like horizontal blinds, but peering through is a snarling male face, making a statement clearly in line with the notion of "jealousy."

London dealer Didier Antiques is offering jewelry by Hans Arp and Pomodoro as well as a ravishing gold necklace by Arje Griegst, who worked for Georg Jensen. That necklace is studded with tourmalines and dates from 1970.

Another highlight was the stand of Manhattan French ceramics dealer Jason Jacques. Its highly designed, custom-made interior featured walls were sheathed in taffeta-thin copper and vitrines covered with oak bark. The floor pattern, a swirl of different colored woods, was taken from a design by the Wiener Werkstätte participant Kolomon Moser. "It’s a Bohemian forest," said Jacques of his highly stylish booth.

What’s interesting about Jacques’ specialty, ceramics by artisans who were really veering into the abstract long before painters considered such a direction, is that now contemporary art collectors are picking up these table top items. There’s a Jugendstil vessel with a metal base by Otto Eckmann and the glaze is of a ravishing iridescence.

The price is $110,000.

A final stop at this fair was Francois Laffanour’s Galerie Downtown. On view at the booth of this Paris dealer was Jeanneret’s Table Eclairant for Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh project in India. It’s massive and a Modernist icon originally designed for a university library. The design really resembles Jean Prouvé in conception. This table is certain to end up in either a museum or perhaps in the loft of a hedge fund honcho.

With so many top tier wares on display and such spirited sales, Smith’s latest version of the Modernism fair now ranks as nation’s premier design show, and has earned a solid spot on the global shopping circuit.

BROOK S. MASON is chief correspondent for Art & Antiques.