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The rebirth of postmodern design

The market for the movement is in its infancy, but growing, thanks to scholarship and collector interest

Postmodern design, from left: Peter Shire's “Big Sur Settee”, 1986 (est £4,000-£6,000), and Ettore Sottsass's “Beverly Cabinet”, 1981 (est £6,000-£8,000), both produced by Memphis, are on sale at Christie's 20th-century decorative art and design sale on 25 October, while Alessandro Mendini's iconic “Proust” chair is on sale at Bonhams “Contemporary Two” auction on 19 October

LONDON. When Marc Benda of the New York gallery, Friedman Benda, unveils a major presentation of ceramics by the Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007), at the Pavilion of Art & Design in London, it will be the first time that many of these pieces from the 1950s and 1960s have appeared in public. It’s the right time, Benda says, to dedicate his booth to the arch-postmodernist. “Scholarship and interest has increased significantly since we started holding annual gallery shows of Sottsass in 2003,” he says.

His confidence is echoed by other PAD exhibitors. London-based Lamberty Antiques is showing two Joe chairs, shaped like giant baseball gloves (£9,500 and £11,500), from a 1990 edition of the 1971 design by Italian architects, Gionatan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Paolo Lomazzi (sourced from collector Tom Watkins) and a late 1980s edition of Ettore Sottsass’s 1981 Carlton Bookcase (£12,500). Meanwhile London gallerist David Gill is exhibiting two limited edition “superbox” cabinets, signed and dated by Ettore Sottsass (Rolling Stones, £45,000; Omaggio a Honda, £75,000). Originally created in 1966 as prototypes for Italian design company Poltronova, Gill’s cabinets were fabricated in 2005 with Sottsass’s consent. “More people are looking at collecting named and limited pieces and Ettore Sottsass is among the most important names of the 20th century,” says Gill.

An early pioneer in postmodern sales, Chicago-based auction house Wright frequently sees results exceeding estimates. Alessandro Mendini’s 1979 Kandissa mirror fetched $11,250 in March (est $2,000-$3,000). And last year a 1969 vase from Ettore Sottsass’ “Yantra” series sold for $13,750 (est $5,000-$7,000), a limited edition 1984 Michael Graves tea service for Alessi achieved $20,000 (est $7,000-$9,000) and a pair of 1978 Robert Venturi Sheraton chairs fetched $17,500 (est $3,000-$5,000).

“From a market perspective, valuations are still evolving,” says Richard Wright. “Early and rare works by Ettore Sottsass represent the top prices achieved at auction with prices reaching six figures. Yet all the major postmodern designers sell for a wide range of prices and interesting pieces can be bought for under $2,000, even for Sottsass. It is an exciting field to collect in as the history of the period is still largely to be written and the top works of period are still coming to market.”

Although postmodernism remains contentious—a triumph of style over substance, critics say—the first in-depth survey of art, design and architecture in the 1970s and 1980s, currently showing at the V&A, is triggering interest. “Postmodernism is being critically appraised and freshly reviewed from an art history perspective because we’ve now got a degree of distance,” says Simon Andrews, a senior specialist at Christie’s 20th-century decorative art and design department.

Still, postmodern designs remain benignly accessible. “There’s more availability than for some other periods of 20th-century design,” says Benda. Christopher Wilk, the V&A’s curator of furniture, textiles and fashion, cites one reason: “Many pieces in the show, such as Nathan Silver’s Adhocist chair, were acquired from, or through, the original designers.” And Joy McCall, the head of Christie’s 20th-century decorative art and design department, explains: “Much of the furniture is quite large and needs space for display, so original collectors are now ready to sell for the practical reason that many are at the ‘downsizing’ age and looking to reduce their collections.”

Keith Johnson, a big postmodern collector with “hundreds of pieces” at home or in storage, sold 12 works including Ettore Sottsass’ Murmansk silver fruit bowl, Peter Shire’s Bel Air chair and Javier Mariscal’s Hilton Bar Trolley to the V&A and gifted four further pieces. Johnson, who is president of New York’s Urban Architecture gallery, says prices have been rising since the V&A show was announced. “I love the cacophony of ideas, concepts and influences in postmodern design. I do believe these are the antiques of the future,” he says.

Indeed any museum collection embracing the 1970s and 1980s must crucially include postmodernism—an endorsement increasingly reflected in the market. “Collectors are going after Sottsass, the Memphis collective and ‘art’ designers like Aldo Rossi and Alessandro Mendini,” says Charles Jencks, author of The Story of Post-Modernism. Still, he believes “connoisseurship is embryonic” and “the market is in its infancy or early childhood”.

“Postmodernism was taken over by big brands and companies in the mid-1980s and sank under the weight of corporate kitsch,” he explains. “By the 1990s it was the most hated movement of the 20th century. But it was re-born after 2000 with iconic buildings like the Bird’s Nest Stadium and has roared back without the [movement’s] name.” Comparing postmodernism to “Art Deco but with more intellect”, he believes the market will slowly grow and “in time become as big because so much was produced”.

Wilk cites further reasons for likely growth: “Aesthetically, people are finding the colours and styles of the furniture go with their pictures and, while there’s a lot of competition for the earliest versions of pieces, even the top of the market seems relatively affordable compared with contemporary 'design art' furniture.” Andrews agrees that “prices are relatively modest. It’s possible to buy the best example of the most important work for less than £20,000” although he cautions that “it’s important to distinguish the key pieces—those that speak most eloquently of their moment in time and have something new to offer in terms of a dialogue with art history”.

One of the movement’s most iconic designs—a Proust armchair commissioned from Alessandro Mendini in 1981 by the current owner—goes on sale at Bonhams’ “Contemporary Two” auction this month with an estimate of £20,000-£30,000. Meanwhile an upcoming sale at Christie’s offers a selection by the Milan-based Memphis collective founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass, including the 1981 Beverly sideboard (est £6,000-£8,000) and the 1982 silver Murmansk Centrepiece (est £7,000-£9,000), both designed by Sottsass.

Data collated by online design forum, a href="http://www.detnk.com">DeTnk, from five of the world’s largest auction houses over the past six years clearly defines postmodernism’s place in the market. In a quarterly update, it reveals that postmodern sales accounted for around 8% of the secondary market’s total volume of sales between January and May 2011. Postmodernism accounted for 374 lots with a total value of £6,865,564 compared with 259 lots of contemporary work valued at £2,778,036.

It fared less well compared with post-war modern work (1,421 lots valued at £14,495,408) and Art Deco (1,041 lots valued at £38,091,503). However the average price per lot reveals an interesting twist. “At £18,357 per lot, postmodern works are higher than contemporary (£10,726) and post-war modern (£10,201) and second only to Art Deco (£36,591),” says the report’s editor-in-chief, Benjamin Faga. “This leads me to believe that while the postmodern sector still constitutes very little of the collectible design market, the values of these objects are rising.”

“Postmodernism is still an acquired taste,” says Benda. “It’s not a market with clear price-levels. It’s a connoisseur’s market. Looks and style are dictating prices at the moment and certain aesthetic pieces are commanding high prices. As people learn more about the art history, though, the market will start reflecting this.”

Pavilion of Art & Design, runs from 12-16 October, Berkeley Square, London W1

“Contemporary Two” sale takes place on 19 October at Bonhams, 13 Montpelier Street, London SW7

“20th Century Decorative Art & Design” sale takes place on 25 October at Christie’s London, 8 King Street, London SW1

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 runs until 8 January 2012 at the V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW1

The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture by Charles Jencks (£24.99) is published by a href="http://www.wiley.com">Wiley

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