How do you explain the (sometimes huge) price gap between vintage and brand new examples of design classics? A client recently approached me about selling a very handsome suite of Florence Knoll furniture that included a pair of cube chairs and a matching 3-seat sofa. The pieces were made in the early 60's and came from an architecturally important building… While the set had been reupholstered at some point, each piece remained in very good condition. The client assumed that because of the age and provenance the trio would be worth upwards of $20,000. He came to this conclusion because a new Florence Knoll sofa starts at $9,000. Unfortunately — whether sold to a generous dealer or at auction — it is unlikely that the entire suite would be sold for much more than $5,000. How can this be?
The 20th century design secondary market is quite unforgiving towards three categories of furniture:
Pieces in continuous production — this includes Florence Knoll's eponymous designs, the popular Barcelona chair by Mies Van Der Rohe or the majority of Arne Jacobsen's seating.
Reissues — this category is made up with furniture manufactured for a specific amount of time, discontinued and then put in to production again. Many of the Eames chairs and George Nelson's designs are good examples of reissues.
Licensed Reproductions — these reproductions are similar to reissues, but are not necessarily connected to the original manufacturer. The licensed manufacturer pays a royalty fee to the original designer/company. As an example, Vitra holds the license to reproduce Jean Prouvé's furniture — but they were not the original manufacturer.
Serious collectors of 20th century design are normally interested in the very first examples of iconic manufactured furniture — not the three categories explained above. Examples that were prototypes, from the first year(s) of production, or that were owned by someone crucial to the piece's iconic status are the designs that achieve major prices at auction. Everything else — whether 40 years old or 4 years old — is often just "used furniture".
A STRANGE TWIST: THE BARCELONA CHAIR
Not to pick on Knoll, but the Barcelona chair — arguably the most famous chair of the last century — is a paradigm of this value hierarchy. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed a pair of steel chairs with tufted leather cushions for the German Pavillion at the World's fair in Barcelona in 1929. Mies would stay in Germany until 1937 when he immigrated to the US. During those 8 years a small unconfirmed number of Barcelona chairs were produced. Christie's (in London) sold the most expensive example, made circa 1929/30, for $204,832 in October 1997.
Amazingly, an example of the same chair from New York City’s Seagram building (also designed by Mies) fetched only $9,600 when auctioned in June 2004. Considering that the price of a new (authentic) Barcelona chair — which has been consistent since the late 1980's at around $6,000 — this example from the Seagram building was a bargain as important 20th century design artifacts. Today, if you are a shrewd shopper, it is possible to purchase a vintage Knoll Barcelona chair for less than $1,000 at auction…
But let’s hope it is authentic. As Modernism was rediscovered its greatest hits became heavily sought after. Sadly, this led to a significant and increasing amount of impostors. Companies that produce licensed designs (such as Knoll, Herman Miller and Cassina) have been forced to become more assertive with stamping and labeling their products to distinguish them from their counterfeit cousins.
IS IT A KNOCKOFF?
It should be pointed out that furniture is considered a functional object in the US and therefore is NOT protected by copyright laws. Companies such as Modernica in California have been manufacturing "Eames" furniture, especially chairs, that are not officially authentic. As a result they can't use the Eames name on any of the products and the Eames Estate does not receive any royalties. Herman Miller (or Vitra in Europe) has manufactured most of the official Eames' designs since the late 1940s.
There is a good rule of thumb when buying new or vintage design classics: if there is no mention or markings of the manufacturer, the piece was probably not made by the original or licensed manufacturer. In other words — it's a knock-off. Also, if the piece is brand new and priced under $750 (see eBay for a myriad of examples) it's also likely a knock-off.
Auction records — even from the major houses — can be vague about period marking. Don't be afraid to contact the original manufacturer for help authenticating vintage examples. Books such as The Furniture of Poul Kjaerholm: Catalogue Raisonné by Michael Sheridan, Knoll: A Modernist Universe by Brian Lutz help both aspiring collectors and designers better understand the details and dates of design icons.
WHY BUY THE REAL THING?
Buying fakes, or pieces that are "inspired by the classics" is considered deplorable in design circles. How can one appreciate design while condoning and patronizing the outright plagiarism of successful designers? Sometimes it seems that there is a double-standard in design: while people may consider it ultra-tacky to buy fake designer handbags, buying 20th century furniture is often tolerated because people want “the look” and don’t care about authenticity. Knockoffs are easy to find — In New York City, White Furniture specializes in vintage pieces and inexpensive reproductions of popular classics. But not everyone is a fan; as one Apartment Therapy reader wrote in reference to a post of this store "Folks, buying unauthorized reproductions is a cheezy thing to do".
New versions (licensed reproductions) of design classics — by designers such as Hans Wegner, Eero Saarinen, Warren Platner etc. — are expensive. But anyone who has owned an authentic example of any of the chairs discussed can attest to the quality of materials, high level of craftsmanship and amazing sculptural and decorative presence of these design icons. While resale value is an important consideration for some, it is not the end-all and be-all. Living with design classics, is an enriching pleasure. Just be sure to verify that what you are buying is authentic.
WHERE DO I BUY THE REAL THING?
The authentic classics are sold at stores like Design Within Reach (though they went through a recent time period of knocking off — this seems to have changed with their recent change in leadership), or directly from the manufacturers like Fritz Hansen and Cassina Don't forget online sites like HiveModern.com and Unica Home.
Images: 1: Joshua McHugh, Florence Knoll Collection; 2: Florence Knoll Sofa; 3: Barcelona chairs at the Barcelona Pavilion by Flickr member malouette as licensed by Creative Commons; 4: Modernica Case Study Fiberglass Shell Chairs; 5: 1958 Poul Kjaerholm PK-22, Courtesy of Modernity, Stockholm Sweden