Published: December 12, 2006
Progressive art movements by definition move forward, so it is no surprise that Modernism, Sanford Smith’s 21-year-old show at the Seventh Regiment Armory from November 17 to 20, never stops evolving.
The name “Modernism” vaguely describes the fluid assortment of Twentieth Century design — and, now, some Twenty-First Century design — that fills Smith’s kunsthalle. A great part of the fun each year is seeing what’s in, what’s out and what’s next.
Nearly 70 exhibitors come from New York, Chicago, Palm Beach and Miami, not to mention London, Paris, Vienna, Stockholm and Milan, an indication of how big the market for Twentieth Century design has become since Smith helped introduce it to New York in 1986.
This year’s Modernism was studded with icons. One must-have was a Charlotte Perriand bookcase and sofa, designed by the French artist in the late 1950s for her home in Brazil, where she was living at the time with her husband, an Air France executive. Galerie Downtown of Paris retailed the ensemble.
Ron Arad’s circa 1992 “Bookworm” shelf, $17,000, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s office chairs for Price Tower and Johnson Wax, $38,000 and $60,000, were standouts at Converso, Chicago/Sam Kaufman, Los Angeles.
Tom Thomas Gallery of New York featured a pair of marble top, hand hammed iron and steel end-tables (price on request). They were from one of Antoni Gaudi’s most celebrated commissions, Casa Mila (1906–10) in Barcelona, and were possibly by the master himself. Thomas showed the tables with a Baccarat crystal chandelier made for Harrod’s Buenos Aires store in the 1960s.
Scandinavian Modern design was represented by seven Nordic specialists in the show. One, Stockholm-based Andrew Duncanson of Modernity Gallery, featured wooden ware by Tapio Wirkkala of Finland, carved pottery vessels by Wilhelm Kage of Sweden and a signature red and white Gerrit Rietveld chair, $28,000, of 1932.
The three Floridians who exhibit at Modernism testify to the architectural reappraisal underway in America’s Vacationland, where homebuyers are snatching up Modernist dwellings from the 1940s through the 1970s.
One of these dealers, 21/20 of West Palm Beach, offered pieces that were nearly new. A stainless steel “Do Hit” chair, along with the sledge hammer that artist Marijn Van der Poll used to make it in 2000, was $800. The crushed stainless-steel perch joined “Amazonia” vases by Gaetano Pesce and a three-door credenza with Marilyn Monroe decoupage decoration. Mimmo Rotella made the credenza in 2005.
The most successful dealers in any field are those who adapt as supply dwindles and tastes change. Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz may be better known for early Nineteenth Century scenic French wallpaper, but that has not stopped the New York- and Paris-based dealer from nimbly moving into Twentieth Century artist-designed wallpaper. To Modernism, Thibaut-Pomerantz brought a swatch of hot-pink “Nana” wallpaper from the early 1970s. It was created by Niki de Saint Phalle, apparently during her Yellow Submarine period.
“The surfaces are wood and metal right now,” said Jim Elkind of Lost City Arts, summing up the latest trends in taste. The Manhattan dealer built his display around bronze sculpture by Harry Bertoia and patinated metal furniture by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. Elkind’s sales included a 10-foot-tall bronze gong, $20,000, made by Bertoia in 1978.
Donzella of New York City also showcased LaVerne, along with Italian Modern furniture and lighting. A brass inlaid, drop front secretary bookcase by Paolo Buffa, circa 1948, was a witty amalgamation of historical references. It cost $45,000.
Modernism used to have more of what most people think of as “antiques.” Today, only a few exhibitors offer traditional late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century specialties. Among them, Macklowe Galleries twinkled with leaded glass Tiffany lamps.
Another gallery that seems timeless in this context is Calderwood, Philadelphia dealers in French Art Deco and Modernist furniture who have been with Modernism from the start. Their cosmopolitan brand of luxe — including works by Dufet, Dominique, Adnet and Leleu — appeals to city folk and, says Janet Calderwood, often to self-made people.
Across the aisle from Calderwood at Two Zero C Applied Art, Michael Playford mounted a high-style homage to Paul Follot. The London dealer featured a pair of circa 1925 sculptured giltwood and black lacquer upholstered armchairs, price on request, and a Follot gilt vitrine, $35,000.
Cotswold School Design, what John Levitties of John Alexander, Ltd, describes as “Pastoral Modern,” is as rural as French Art Deco is urban, but it is equally classic. Prices, through still relatively low, are edging up. An inlaid oak settee designed by G.M. Ellwood for J.S. Henry was $19,000 at Alexander, Ltd. An Edward Barnsley sideboard, $21,500.
From the Cotswold School, it is a short philosophical leap to Nakashima. After cruising along respectably for many years, prices for the Japanese American craftsman’s furniture are soaring out of sight. Nakashima’s gorgeous hunks of wood, poetically shaped and endowed with an understated wabi aesthetic, appeal to a growing cross-section of collectors.
Robert Aibel of Moderne Gallery, the show’s longtime Nakashima specialist, naturally branched from Nakashima into Wharton Esherick and others artists associated with the American Craft Movement. This year, Aibel offered Esherick’s “Pizzicato,” a combination sculpture and rosewood cabinet, $250,000, made for the concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra. A unique Rudolf Steiner 1920s pearwood armoire, $75,000, was another Moderne Gallery highlight.
Flamboyant Italian and elegant French style were alternatives to the wholesomeness of Scandinavian design and the earthiness of the Craft aesthetic. Modernism also has two Austrian design specialists, Tony Subal of Vienna and Rita Bucheit of Chicago. Bucheit’s showpieces included a Secessionist armoire with a chased copper relief panel of Goethe by Georg Klimt and a circa 1929 walnut desk by Ernst L. Freud, youngest son of Sigmund Freud and father of painter Lucian Freud.
For those not seeking an overt idiom, Liz O’Brien supplies something softer. The Manhattan dealer inventories versatile 1940s to 1970s designer furniture that works well in traditional settings. This year, O’Brien’s elegant stand was an ode to reflective surfaces, from glass to brass. A favorite was a 1970s brass bar by Gabriella Crespi.
Of the many handsome displays, the most dramatic belonged to Jason Jacques of New York City, whose copper-colored taffeta walls enclosed bark and copper-clad cases of feverishly exotic art pottery by makers such as Amphora, Zolnay and Massier.
Though fine art is scarce at Modernism, Aaron Galleries of Chicago arrayed geometric abstractions by Robert Breer, Richard F. Dahn and Victor Vasarely, along with representational work by Andrew Wyeth and Reginald Marsh.
Modernism benefits the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which annually makes design awards. A Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Design went to Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, Mich., furniture maker founded 95 years ago. A Distinguished Collector Award went to Paul F. Walter. Tobias Young won the Young Designer Award.
“It’s been a fantastic show, better than in the past two or three years,” Smith said late Monday afternoon, as the fair was wrapping up. “Our gate was up 20 percent through Saturday, and sales have been phenomenal. Modern and Contemporary pieces, especially unusual or unique items, are in great demand. More traditional material is softer. Our buyers save for this show. We were the first and we’re still the best.”
For information, Sanford L. Smith & Associates at 212-777-5218 or www.sanfordsmith.com.
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