Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Robert Isabell Collection: Update
Monday, November 23, 2009
Robert Isabell: Garden of Mid-Century Delights
For years I have secretly coveted the forbidding ivy-clad little townhouse at 16 Minetta Lane. I knew that it belonged to the rather elusive event designer Robert Isabell but I had no clue what treasures were secured behind that little iron gate. I knew of Robert third-hand through friends and colleagues and erroneously suspected that his home would be the typical town and country affair: acres of mahogany, gilding, Jansen, Bagues, Limoges boxes with catchy phrases etc. all tied together neatly with chintz. Shortly after his untimely death this summer came the announcement that Sotheby's 20th Century Design department would be honoring his collection with a single owner sale. The catalogue went online last week and all fell into place. It is predominantly a Paul Evans, Phillip Lloyd Powell, George Nakashima and Harry Bertoia affair. It makes sense as these studio artist's works strangely mesh rather well together. While Evans and Powell's furniture can tend to be be brutal and overbearing at worst, Isabell chose more organic and textured designs that were layered cleverly with mini-collections of Bertoia and Ihlenfeld botanical bronzes with great effect.
The 128 lot sale is estimated to bring $1.5 million and proceeds will benefit the Gerald B. Lambert Memorial Foundation, Inc. for the sole purpose of maintaining and preserving the Oak Spring Garden Library and Greenhouses in Upperville, VA. This seems rather fitting since Isabell's eclectic home comprised a townhouse linked to a carriage house via a glass roof creating a four-story greenhouse atrium...all without air conditioning evidently. I wonder what this atmosphere has done to the condition of the largely wood and metal artworks...we shall see when the exhibition begins on December 12th. It appears that Isabell's architectural vision has been unpalatable in this market as the home was listed with Massey Knakal initially at $3.9 million and suffered two price reductions; $3.4 million and then to $2.85 million and is now under contract. I am very interested to see the next incarnation of this great West Village abode.
As a final aside, when I was pouring over the listing information provided by Massey Knakal I noticed one of the rooms contained a monumental Piero Fonasetti "Architettura" bureau-bookcase (below, right). It is a wonderful and imposing piece and is worth $20,000-30,000, but failed to make the cut as it was omitted from Sotheby's sale. Perhaps it was bequeathed to a lucky person in Isabell's insular world...we shall see.
Friday, November 20, 2009
East Meets West on 10th Street
This is one of my favorite architectural treasures in New York City. Strolling past the parade neoclassical and Italianate townhouses on 10th street, a unique vision emerges literally where East meets West. At 7 East 10th street is the former home of celebrated American artist Lockwood de Forest. De Forest initially trained as a painter and was a founding member of the decorating firm "Associated Artists" with Louis Comfort Tiffany. He had a passion for the Orientalist movement and for Indian architecture in particular. On the occasion of his honeymoon in 1879, de Forest travelled extensively throughout India and in Ahmadabad encountered the woodcarving studio of Muggunbhai Hutheesing in which he became an investor. The aim of the studio was to preserve the exquisite indian woodworking tradition that was heavily impacted by colonialism and the industrial revolution. Therefore the quality of the carving and motifs surpassed much of the "exotica" that was being imported to the West at the time. When the home was built in 1887, de Forest naturally chose to embellish the western structure with lavish moldings and architectural details from the carving studio. The result is sheer fantasy and the fact that it has survived is remarkable given the ever changing tastes and modes in architecture.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Design for Dreaming (1956)
This is one of my favorite Ephemeral Films from the Prelinger Archives. It is a ten minute mini-feature created by General Motors to capture and promote the 1956 "Motorama" held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. It is a visual feast that can be dissected on so many levels: fashion, gender roles, automobiles, fairs etc. If you set aside the now classic cars and "new look" ensembles it is the styling that really captivates me. The main stage with its white pylons and arches is purely Eero Saarinen in feeling and perhaps in truth. Saarinen had just completed the G. M. Technical Center campus in Warren, Michigan and the look is very much related to his groundbreaking design for Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia which was completed a few years later. My obsession comes at 3:20 with the unveiling of Frigidaire's "Kitchen of Tomorrow."
Frigidaire was actually owned by G. M. in 1956 and the styling department took over this futuristic vision of what the home kitchen could be complete with prototype appliances. The installation comprised a sleek open plan with an interactive recipe file, marble topped induction cook surface, ultrasonic dishwasher, clear domed in-counter oven, and the unforgettable push-button magic of the circular glass "Roto-Storage Center" refrigerator/freezer. It would inspire anyone to to rise to culinary heights, but perhaps in a bit less chiffon.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Editor's Choice: Modernism Fair
German Art Deco Silver Teapot, circa 1920s
Well the Modernism fair at the Park Avenue Armory closed its doors today with most of the exhibitors in good spirits. I gravitated to metalwork for some reason as is my nature to be attracted to shiny objects. At the booth of New York based J. Lohmann Gallery I encountered a most compelling teapot, and yes there is such a thing as a compelling teapot! It is German Art Deco from the 1920s but owes heavily to the Bauhaus and functionalist schools. It is sleek, modern and space age in its geometry... a veritable tea machine. I am sure if one dug a little deeper a design attribution could be made. A consummate object for sure... and still available from the dealer kids.
Paul Evans Wall Mounted Sculptural Front Cabinet, circa 1960s
The other object that caught my eye was this Paul Evans sculptural front cabinet in the booth of George Gilpin. Now I must qualify this by saying that sometimes Evans' work can be a bit too brutal for my sensibilities, but that is not the case with this cabinet. The array of vibrant tones and sculpted textures evoke an inspired marriage of Louise Nevelson and Joan Miró. It was no surprise that this cabinet found a buyer and thus a new home.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Royère Tops Phillips Design Sale
Phillips de Pury and Co. hosted their Design sale yesterday with results that bode well for the market. The tidy 155 lot auction brought in $3.5 million with 75% of the lots finding buyers. All things considered this is a strong result that will hopefully provide buoyancy for the rest of the major design auctions happening next month. The top lot was a great pair of early Jean Royère "Boule" chairs covered in a shaggy goatskin. The pair brought in an impressive $482,500 against a $200,000-300,000 estimate. At that price I am sure Phillips tossed in a brush, compliments of the house...
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Gluck Part II? Not really…
When Christie’s June 2009 20th Century Design auction only featured three works by Tiffany Studios it left many wondering if they were holding back major Tiffany lamps for the more desirable fall sale season. I must say when Christie’s announced that their December 8th “Magnificent Tiffany” sale would feature a selection from the fabled Gluck Collection I was more than intrigued. The first component of this legendary sale goes back some 30 years. Eugene and Eleanor Gluck amassed the bulk of their Tiffany glass collection in the 1970s, most of it through Lillian Naussau. Lillian was a tour-de-force art and jewelry dealer who had the foresight to snap-up Tiffany lamps during the heady post-war years. At that time, most Americans, seduced by the cool sleekness of Formica and new modernist construction, viewed Tiffany lamps as garish and Victorian, sending them to the thrift shop or the rubbish heap. After Eugene Gluck passed in 1978 the family opted to sell a large part of their collection and the sale became a benchmark of the expanding Tiffany market. The sale marked the first time a Tiffany lamp exceeded $100,000 at auction and this happened three times that day. A small and exceedingly rare “cobweb” lamp made $150,000, a larger “cobweb” fetched 125,000 and a delightfully saturated “wisteria" achieved $120,000. The sale was magic and blurred the perception between “decorative art” and “fine art”. Today a Gluck provenance easily commands a higher estimate right out of the gate.
Now that the history lesson is over, the current Christie’s sale offers what appears to be the remainder of the Gluck collection coming in at a mere ten lots, only two of which are worth writing home about. The Gluck section opens boldly with a vibrant 22 inch “peony” lamp and a few lots down the line we get to a delightfully aquatic toned “conical dragonfly” shade on a conforming mosaic base. There is one other lamp, a less desirable geometric, and the rest are a tasteful but lesser array of Tiffany glass and bronze table articles. But hey, with that provenance everything in the section should do quite well. In spite of the economy, Christie’s managed to amass a good-looking sale overall but I am puzzled by one decision. They opted to place four 22 inch “peony” lamps in one sale. It seems like a bit much, but they actually make a good object study for the novice. Individual Tiffany patterns are built on the same “mold” but it is always the glass selection that makes the true difference. They put these lamps in the sale by order of quality, and thus, estimate. The Gluck example (a rarer variant and hands down the best) is up first at lot 11, the next (in succulent reds) is lot 41, and the remaining two are lots 46 and 47. As you look at them in order notice how the first two examples have a mottled and brooding tonality achieving a sense of depth and movement. Contrast that with lots 46 and 47 and you see how the lesser examples of the “peony” really begin to flatten out into something that is “pretty” but lacking in intensity. Lets hope that Sotheby’s doesn't offer any peony lamps of this size, who knows what the market will bear. Tiffany has shown itself to be a strong performer over the past year, but personally, I would not want to sell my “peony” when there are already four others in the mix. You definitely split your chances at achieving an aggressive price, unless yours is the very best (Gluck).
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Introducing the Tantalizing Tatra
Well Wright’s current December 8th Important Design auction is a bit of the usual onslaught of primarily mid-century to contemporary design masters (Eames, Sottsass, Wright, Evans, Pergay, Hadid, Newson etc.) But, the economy has likely curtailed his offerings from the usual 1000 lots to a more manageable 405 lots on the block. That said, I was captivated by an unusual and rare offering. Wright managed to snag a vintage 1940 Czechoslovakian Tatra T87 sedan. First designed in 1936, it is an icon of European streamlined design. Falling somewhere between aviation and automobile design, the overall impact is one of futuristic exuberance that emerged on the heels of a looming world war. It is anyone’s guess, but I feel that this will very likely sell to a car collector for obvious logistical reasons. We will have to wait and see if it meets its $150,000-200,000 estimate.
I was scrolling through the offerings in Bonham’s & Butterfield’s upcoming design auction on December 9th and came across an old friend. Lot 3404 is an attractive “Octagonal Bas” settee by Art Deco master Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann in a very memorable, if not tired, peach satin upholstery. This smart geometric settee was actually offered last December at Sotheby’s but went unsold at an estimate of $70,000-90,000. I looked up the records online and they both indeed have the same provenance listed: Tommy Perse, Los Angeles, 1982. There has been ever increasing demand for blue chip Art Deco objects since the groundbreaking results achieved at the Dray and YSL sales which make this little settee seem a bargain at its current estimate of $40,000-60,000. But there is another intriguing layer. Those in the know may remember that Sotheby’s had late-breaking additions to the provenance after the sale was published. Unfortunately, when the settee made its way to Bonham’s this additional information was omitted. This piece was actually sold by legendary dealer Lillian Nassau to restaurateur and Ruhlmann aficionado Jean Denoyer probably in the late 1960’s when these masterworks were still approachable to young collectors. Denoyer later sold the settee through Christie’s on December 4, 1980, lot 332 where it made its way to Tommy Perse. The reduced estimate and the additional first-rate provenance make this a piece to watch this season. I anticipate that this little sleeping giant will generate much activity among private buyers and the trade, pushing past the high estimate if all goes well for Bonham’s…we shall see.
La La La Lalanne!
Wow kids, Christie's December 8th 2009 Twentieth Century Design sale really jumped on the Claude and Francois Xavier-Lalanne train full throttle. I am anxious to see what the major dealers and protectors of the Lalanne market think about so many of these surreal and quirky sculptural confections hitting the market all at once. How many do you ask? 10, 20, 30.....try 52! Nearly a third of their entire various owners sale. Perhaps they are still feeling the rush of the Lalanne frenzy experienced during the YSL sale last winter. Alas, my catalogue has not arrived, so I am anxious to see if it is a single owner collection, that would explain things to a degree. Still, to my eye it seems like market saturation during an already soft period, but who knows, we will have to wait and see when the gavel falls. See their entire sale here.