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The modern way to furnish it

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Interest in what is known as modern design – mid-20th century design to be specific – has taken off in the past 10 years, with a peak period during the past five years on the secondary market.

A few visionaries began to pick up this furniture 25 years ago, some literally so, finding unwanted examples left out on nature strips. There are stories of pieces bought for $70 in 1990 at Camberwell Markets that are now worth $7000 at auction.


The modern way to furnish it
Its no coincidence that this boom corresponds to the demand for inner-city apartment living. This furniture, or the modern replicas now being made, are ideally suited to modern apartments. No surprise there, this is what they were originally designed for.
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The NGV's recent exhibition, Australian Furniture Design, has also sparked interest in this period. Anna Grassham, recently appointed as Leonard Joel's modern design specialist, says that her November 2014 sale was its biggest yet. With a steady supply of items there is no sign of a downturn.

Leonard Joel has recently struck a deal with the Mr. Bigglesworthy concept store in Auckland to supply regular material for their modern design sales. This shop was created by Emma and Dan Eagle who have have been collecting and selling mid-20th century furniture for the past decade. They sell at auction as well as retail.

 

 

Their first shipment of 50 pieces will arrive in time for Leonard Joel's next auction on 23 April.  Grassham notes that this relatively new market has attracted a new demographic to the secondary market, including those in the 25 to 45-year-old age group who generally fit in with the hipsters movement currently being documented in the SBS series. Many buying this stuff are architects, graphic designers and IT professionals who love the idea that it is secondhand.

This theory is explored by Grassham in Leonard Joel's monthly magazine, Leonard. She writes that the fascination with pre-owned objects is best explained by the Japanese concept known as shibui – the nearest western equivalent is patina.

"Shibui describes the 'life' behind the qualities of any experience, a sense of evolving perfection – or in the context of furniture design, the wear and tear, the folds and forms and the natural beauty that only time brings." This explains why used furniture has a far greater value than modern replicas. Restored pieces are also prized and can be worth thousands more if the original soul of the furniture has been retained.

There's also an ethical reason for preferring the original over the modern replica. "Many replicas are produced overseas, in poverty-stricken countries, are of sub-standard quality," claims Grassham. They are "made from materials that are not created to last and are mere imitations of grand designs, with no meaning or reverence for the original concept".
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Pieces that sell best at auction are those that can be attributed to a specific designer or manufacturer, preferably with period badge or label as provenance.

They can be Scandinavian, Italian, French, American or Australian in origin although the industry barometer suggests that the fad for Danish 1950s style may have peaked, the result of a flooding of the market.

Regardless there is still expected to be strong demand for the pieces by Hans Wegner, Arne Vodder and Grete Jalk, all part of the Mr. Bigglesworthy consignment. Among the Australians, work by Schulim Krimper continue to rise in value, as does anything by sculptor Clement Meadmore, who began his career as an industrial designer.

One of his prized Calyx lamps is also available, now valued at $4000 to $6000.

Vintage pieces mass-produced by Fler, Parker and Fred Ward are also in demand. These were all freely available on nature strips 25 years ago. Certain pieces from the 1970s and 1980s are now given great significance. A spectacular "wave" sofa designed by Zaha Hadid in 1988 is for sale, with estimates of $30,000 to $40,000.

The next Leonard Joel Modern Design auction is on Thursday, April 23, at 333 Malvern Road, South Yarra, staring at 6.30 pm.

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