Indeed, not everyone can own an architect-designed house. But furniture is more accessible—a way for people to have a piece of the architect's aesthetic. Rudolph Schindler devotees, for example, can purchase reproductions of the raw redwood furniture he designed for the well-known Kings Road House. “The original furniture was made out of scraps of redwood from the house, so it's very tied to the architecture he was working on at the time,” says Ron Radziner, FAIA, whose firm, Marmol Radziner + Associates, Los Angeles, is licensed to produce and sell the pricey, wire-brushed reproductions through the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood, Calif.
In their own shop, Radziner and firm co-founder Leo Marmol, FAIA, also painstakingly produce small quantities of furniture based on the long, thin houses they like to design. Their product design affiliate, Marmol Radziner Furniture, sells about 100 pieces a year, which are modifications of furniture from the firm's Glencoe Residence and prototype prefab Desert House. Every item is numbered and dated, making it potentially more valuable down the road. “Although the Barcelona Chair is still made, those earlier versions probably have the most value,” Radziner says. “Ours are expensive and time-consuming to construct, so there's not that many of them out there, versus a piece that's mass-produced.”art for everyman
It's easy to see why collectors covet limited-edition furniture made by top-tier architects. But furniture that's less about space and more about the body may fare better in the long run. As Radziner points out, neither Schindler's nor Wright's furniture is particularly comfortable, compared to work by, say, Charles and Ray Eames. “With Eames comes the sense that they were really crafting it for the body, exploring materiality by bending and forming plywood,” he says, and that they “were less encumbered by imagining the piece in a particular place.”
Eames' chairs—including the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, Molded Plastic Chairs, Aluminum Group, and Molded Plywood Chairs—are among Herman Miller's most iconic pieces. Outwardly sculptural, yet with an ingrained sensibility for daily use, they were designed around the human body before the word “ergonomic” was coined, says Gregg Vander Kooi, classics manager for Herman Miller for the Home, Zeeland, Mich. “One of the key design traits of mid-century modern furniture is the use of simple, honest materials,” he says. “It's this trait that allows consumers to appreciate design for what it is. It's also this trait that I feel inspires contemporary designers, which you can see translated into forms outside of furniture.”
Another hot item for Herman Miller is the sinuous coffee table by Isamu Noguchi, who made his mark in the 1940s doing biomorphic sculptures. With a retail price of around $1,195, it's within reach of the average consumer, as are his popular Akari lamps. “His objects can fit into so many different settings, even with antiques,” says Douglas de Nicola, design director of The Noguchi Museum, Long Island City, N.Y. “The coffee table's timelessness is its simplicity and clarity; it makes a statement and makes the room. He wanted to enhance the quality of people's lives. You can live with art: that was his mind-set.”collector value
What impact the continued availability of new mid-century modern furniture has on vintage objects depends on the piece and the marketing approach. Noguchi originally made 10 chess tables for Herman Miller, and the company later reissued 10 more. “We priced them at $25,000 and sold” all but one, de Nicola says. “The vintage ones are probably more valuable, but who knows what the re-editions will be worth in the future?” When pieces are reintroduced after years out of production, the vintage market doesn't necessarily collapse. “The reverse sometimes happens,” says Vander Kooi. “As consumers experience a wider breadth of designers' collections, they gain a greater appreciation for their depth of talent.”
At auction houses, unique furnishings from specific commissions fetch the highest prices, according to James Zemaitis, senior vice president and director of 20th-century design at Sotheby's in New York City. Most of the work he sells from that period is by architects, not industrial or interior designers. “We're [on the lookout for] artifacts that should be in museums and original houses open to the public but are not,” he says. “On the other hand, built-ins by Richard Neutra have less value once they're removed from interiors, because they might not have the same presence. Chairs that can stand on their own—like the Barrel Chair—still have a sculptural quality and epitomize the work of the architects.” Likewise, he adds, the prototypes for a Herman Miller commission have more market value than the company's most iconic works that have been in production year after year.
From Zemaitis' perspective, today's architects have several options. They can design one-off pieces for clients for posterity, have their work mass-produced and hope it's a commercial success, or work with a gallery to create a limited number of specific pieces. “You have to be an incredible ‘boldface' name to capitalize on the limited-edition market, to be honest,” he says. But regardless of the venue, Zemaitis has one word for what endures: organic. “Works that consistently have the most market value are inherently zoomorphic or biomorphic, sexy, curvy,” he says. “They look like sculpture, as well as being classical works of furniture.”
Even if only the most famous find large-scale success selling limited editions in their lifetime, Benjamin Pardo, senior vice president of design at Knoll, says any architect with a striking concept can profit from mass marketing. But it takes someone who understands interiors—a strong suit of residential architects. “The largest group of architects thinks about a building's exterior, not necessarily circulation,” he says. “The question becomes: What is the object we're putting in a space?”
The way Pardo sees it, furniture either creates interior architecture—think of a Florence Knoll sofa—or is a foil for it, meaning an organic form such as a Bertoia or Saarinen chair that represents the human in space. “The interesting thing about Saarinen is that he went to Paris and studied sculpture. When you're looking at any of his work, remember that,” Pardo says. “At the end of the day you need all those things: the big box sofa that creates architectural space, and the organizing piece that represents the figure or person, like the Womb Chair. Something in the space that calls attention to itself, some form of visual delight.”
Ultimately, the pursuit of visual delight is what motivates all architects. That, and objects that stand the tests of usability and time. But Cutler, recalling a conversation he had with his longtime mentor Peter Q. Bohlin, FAIA, says that you can't try to make something timeless. It just is, or it isn't. “For a while, mid-century modern was the worst thing in the world,” he says. “That's just the nature of cultures. Time tells you what was good and bad in a period; the good stuff ultimately falls out.”
of time and talent
Auction houses are cultural hunter-gathers unrestricted by eras or prevailing tastes, and there's no predicting the vicissitudes of period trends. But right now, postwar and contemporary design is commanding the highest prices at auction, says James Zemaitis, senior vice president and director of 20th-century design at Sotheby's, New York City. The hot items range from work by American mid-century modernists and French postwar architects to contemporary designers. “That doesn't mean that prices for important prewar 20th-century design—Greene and Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Tiffany—haven't also been increasing at a rapid rate,” he says. “Trends are driven by interior designers, museum shows, and the media. Today you have serious collectors in all areas. But the press writes about what's new and contemporary.”
This interest is fueled by today's fast-moving art market and a network of important fairs, such as Art Basel Miami Beach, that show product design in context with contemporary art, he says. There are also more auction houses than there were 10 years ago, and more art and design to choose from. That's because young, contemporary designers are savvier than previous generations about finding gallery reps and auction houses and doing limited editions. Over the years, “the auction market went from being open only to trade and antiques dealers to receiving constant attention in the way movies receive box office attention,” Zemaitis says. As a result, “industrial designs made in 2007, exhibited at a specific show, and retailed through a gallery can almost immediately be flipped on the auction market in 2008.”
So far, however, only a handful of contemporary architects are successfully navigating this circuit. According to Zemaitis, 90 percent of the furniture makers he works with today are industrial designers.