Published: December 10, 2002
By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY — Thought you’d never be a slave to off-white wall-to-wall carpet? Think again. Along with the legendary 1960s style queens Babe Paley, Slim Keith and C.Z. Guest, deep, thick, cream-colored carpet — luxurious, expansive, expressionless — is back, nonchalantly covering floors at Sanford Smith’s Modernism: .
Modernism has been many things since it debuted 17 years ago (think funky, think eclectic, think of the bipolar years in the recessionary early 1990s when Smith operated two shows simultaneously under one roof.) One thing that has never changed, however, is the influence that Smith and his cadre of 70 exhibitors exert on design and collecting habits everywhere. There are variations of this trendsetter all over the globe, but Modernism is still the original.
This year’s fair at Manhattan’s Seventh Regiment Armory between November 14 and 17 offered the up-and-coming, including Chinese Art Deco furniture, vernacular photography, loopy Erica Wilson embroidery and wall-sized sectional display units prefiguring the 1970s Door Store-era.
It was also rich in those little black dresses of home design, modern classics such as Viennese Secession furniture and silver, Tiffany and Daum glass, and Gustav Stickley furniture. “These pieces are now considered fine antiques,” Smith explains. “Modernism is no longer the place to buy what is hot. It’s where you buy the best from 1890 to 2002.”
“I started out as a dealer in San Francisco in 1974. I’d send photographs to the top museums, but, unless it was Frank Lloyd Wright, they just weren’t interested,” says Denis Gallion of Historical Design, now part of Modernism’s Old Guard elite. It used to be that Gallion bought nothing made post-1939. Now he and his partner Daniel Morris take a panoramic look at the entire century. Their exhibit ranged from a Josef Hoffmann silver and ivory tea service, $150,000, shown in the Austrian section of the Paris 1925 exhibition, to a 1990s bronze folding chair by chic British designer Ron Arad.
Gallion was not speaking of the forward-looking Brooklyn Museum, which has benefited from Modernism’s preview party for nearly two decades. This year’s opening night was chaired by Suzanne Slesin and Michael Steinberg and drew between 1,100 and 1,200 people.
“It was a happy coincidence for us when Modernism was born,” remembers curator Barry Harwood. “Brooklyn was presenting its ‘Machine Age’ show, really the first big show of its kind. Brooklyn has been a pioneer in Twentieth Century design. We buy across the board. The funds that we raise at Modernism supplement our decorative arts department.”
Harwood and his colleague Kevin Stayton assembled a loan show at the fair that paid tribute to Vladimir Kagan, recipient of the Brooklyn Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Design for 2002. (Its Young Designers Award went to Tyler Brule, the founding editor of the magazine Wallpaper.) Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman called Kagan, a New York designer since the 1940s, “a dynamic force in the field. A renewed interest in his midcentury organic designs, again in production, as well as vibrant new designs are a testament to his constant creativity.”
The curators conceived the Kagan display as a concise visual time line. Reading from left to right, it began with a splay-leg side chair upholstered in synthetic leather by Kagan Woodcraft, 1946; proceeded to a 1955 walnut rocking chair covered in crewel embroidery by Kagan’s wife, needlework maven Erica Wilson; and concluded with the thoroughly up-to-the-minute “Fettuccine Chair,” a noodle-like metal frame fitted with leather by Fassen in Italy in 2002.
With dealers from England, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and France, as well as the United States, Modernism 2002 spoke design in heavily accented English. Giving new meaning to the phrase International Style, Chinese, British, Italian and Belgian Modern joined the expo’s big three, French, Scandinavian and American Modern.
“It’s totally representative of her work,” Mark McDonald said of one his prize pieces, a large, sculptural pottery vase with incised decoration by Maija Grotell, the renowned ceramist lured to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan by its president, Eliel Saarinen. A vanguard dealer in American Twentieth Century design who recently removed his shop to Hudson, N.Y., McDonald also offered a classic Eames storage unit and an Alvar Aalto laminated birch library table, $25,000, made for Harvard University in 1948.
Modernism’s dominant aesthetic these days is simple and tasteful, long and low. The look has been especially well-promoted by Donzella, Lin-Weinberg Gallery and Liz O’Brien, three New York retailers specializing in 1930s to 1950s American designer furniture. Colleagues such as Galerie de Beyrie offer a French equivalent.
Galerie de Beyrie’s spare, clean stand featured furniture by Frenchman Jean Royere, upholstered in taupe, violet and vintage tangerine; ceramics by Gouve; and carved wood sculpture by Noll. A highlight at Donzella was a Tommi Parzinger dining table of mahogany overlaid with an elegant lattice of inlaid maple. Donzella sold its star piece, a Donald DeLue gilded bronze “Icarus,” $55,000, of 1934.
Other sales around the floor included a major piece of silver, around $30,000, at Lauren-Stanley. The New York dealers also parted with surreal pitchers, made in an edition of ten by Constantine Maslennikof in 1990, each $10,000. Casa Mollino Foundation of Turin, Italy, shipped out a Fulvio Ferrari table priced in the six figures; Papillon Gallery of Los Angles sold “Dancing, La Cupole,” an oil on canvas by Charles Laborde, circa 1925, for $15,000.
From Two Zero C Applied Arts of London, the Brooklyn Museum acquired a pair of Emile Robert Art Nouveau iron gates, $75,000. BAC, specialist in European design from the 1920s to the 1940s, retailed a Pierre Lotier marble and wrought iron table, $35,000, of 1947, from Ava Gardiner’s house.
Benoist Drut of Maison Gerard, New York City, was cozy behind his aerodynamic Fletcher Streamline Aviation Desk, $20,000, made in Los Angeles during World War II. In his booth was another tribute to the age of flight: a wooden airplane propeller refitted as a clock, $3,800.
Calderwood Gallery’s understated black and cream display provided a fitting backdrop for French Art Deco furniture by Adnet and Jules Leleu and framed black and white photographs. Presenting his own work for the first time in 25 years, Gary Calderwood, who studied with Minor White and Ansel Adams, encircled his booth with a tableau of his hometown, Philadelphia, to which he added photos of car crashes from the 1951 archives of The Evening Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Antik, Dansk Moebelkunst and Jacksons led the Scandinavian contingent. Antik’s brilliantly designed stand juxtaposed horizontal case piece furniture with pile and flatweave room-size carpets displayed as large, upright rectangles. Worked in geometric patterns, the soft, colorful textiles were Swedish-made by MMF and priced from $18,000 to $35,000. Punctuating the display were bird’s-eye view photographs, $4,000 each, from Ed Ruscha’s “Parking Lot” series of 1967.
Betsy Nathan of Pagoda Red in Chicago is Modernism’s first specialist in Chinese Art Deco furniture, carpets and accessories, a taste she developed while living in mainland China. She now imports what is still a rarity here: dark, lustrous Chinese furniture made in the 1920s and 1930s. The appealing forms — tables, stands, chests and chairs — are generally small in scale and blend elements of Chinese and English design. Nathan and her partner Michael Keely also showed Shanghai carpets, often loosely called “Nichols” rugs, starting at $8,000, and framed gouache carpet designs, from $800. A well-known magazine editor swooped in and bought a carpet from Pagoda Red on Saturday night.
Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic furniture, art and accessories supplied a quaintness to a show that often seems more sleek than sentimental. Boston dealers JMW Gallery were on hand with Grueby pottery; a rare Gustav Stickley leather-covered desk, $11,000; two sets of vividly patterned curtains; and works on paper by such notables as Margaret Jordan Patterson, Gustave Baumann, Hannah Borger Overbeck and Edna Boies, a Provincetown printer who was strongly influenced by A.W. Dow.
The Arts and Crafts Movement material segued nicely into the mid-Twentieth Century Craft Movement. Furniture by George Nakashima was shown at both Moderne Gallery of Philadelphia and Geoffrey Diner Gallery of Washington, D.C. Moderne featured pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, including a cherrywood long chair with a free-form arm and a double sliding-door cabinet; Diner had an important Nakashima desk.
As a welcome reprieve from the industrial age, John Alexander Ltd of Philadelphia offered nut-brown British Arts and Crafts furniture. The attractive works included an Ambrose Heal oak library table, circa 1910, $16,000; and a sideboard designed by Frank Brangwyn for E. Pollard & Co., Ltd, circa 1916, $22,000. Sarah Latham-Kearns of New York harmonized two sympathetic genres, British Arts and Crafts and Scandinavian furniture. By Hugh Birkett, an English paneled walnut long-case clock with a stylized vellum dial was $30,000.
One place to see complementary fine arts of the period was at Aaron Galleries of Chicago, where Patrick Albano and Irene Falconer featured Werner Drewes’ “Abstract” of 1935, $50,000. A circa 1892 Chicago Stock Exchange stencil by Louis Sullivan was $25,000 while a series of three architectural drawings by F.L. Wright for the Hunt House in LaGrange, Ill, 1907, was $26,000.
“Modernism has gone extremely well this year, far better than anyone expected. The gate is almost equal to two years ago, which is a big plus in this economy,” Smith said hours before the show’s close. “Major European dealers took part this year, and the material has been a step up. We’re happy to see curators and collectors coming through the show.”
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