norman miller writer and photographer
norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer

Christie's Magazine

When the gavel fell at $3.8m in Christie's 2005 New York auction of Italian designer Carlo Mollino's 1949 oak-base table, the sale price (around 20 times estimate) was confirmation that so-called “design-art” wood furniture could have the cache and price tags of art – like works of sculpture you just happened to be able to sit or put things on.

Wood has a special place in the design-art arena, an organic material lending itself perfectly to the unique pieces that have lit up the market - nowhere more than in the work of American George Nakashima and Brazil's Hugo Franca. Nakashima could have spoken for both when he said: “Each tree, each part of each tree, has its own particular destiny, its own special yearning to be fulfilled.”

Like several other star woodworkers, Nakashima trained as an architect, learning traditional Japanese joinery while interned during WW2. Nakashima's post-war furniture celebrates knots, burrs and grain, flaunting unfinished natural edges, exposed joints and natural voids. He also designed furniture lines for Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, and a 1958 Widdicomb sofa realised $31,250 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) this year. But it is his one-offs that broke the $100,000 auction mark on 10 occasions between 2007-9, while a 1973 table in English oak burl and walnut made $204,000 at Skinner in 2010.

Hugo Franca scouts fallen or reclaimed examples of his favourite tree, the giant Pequi of his native Brazil, before hand-carving his pieces. “It’s an exercise in finding functionality in the forms that are already there,” he says. Franca's biomorphic Shukura coffee table quadrupled its estimate to make £67,250 at Sotheby's in 2010, while covetable pieces currently available at New York's R 20th Century include a 'Nimosi' chair for $22,000 and 'Maiara' asymmetric dining table for $50,000.

“The market has developed hugely over the past five years as buyers who initially started collecting 50s and 60s furniture have become increasingly sophisticated,” says Dan Tolson, LAMA's director of 20th Century Decorative Art & Design. “Rare examples of mass-produced and one-off pieces are each capable of attracting high auction prices. Prices for the furniture of French architect/designer Jean Prouvé have increased significantly recently – for example, we sold a Jean Prouvé Antony chair in December 2011 with an estimate of $15,000-20,000 - it realised $47,500.”

Prouve and French compatriot Charlotte Perriand are part of a strong European contingent. Prouve initially designed in metal, but turned to wood due to WW2 steel shortages, producing furniture epitomising the manifesto of the Union Of Modern Artists he founded in 1930 - "logic, balance and purity". While Prouve's value is rising – an oak dining table c 1950 sold for $90,000 recently at New York's Magen XX Gallery - Perriand trumps him, with the likes of a free-form 1960 desk fetching $194,500 at Phillips de Pury in 2012.

Though she worked with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret on iconic steel furniture such as their 1928 chrome-plated chaise longue, Perriand was clear about her first love: “I like the precision of metal – but I like caressing wood.” Her favourite was the pine of her native Savoie region, which she memorably said could be rendered “as soft as a woman’s thighs”.  Her 1950s collaborations with Prouve on bookcases for the Cité Universitaire in Paris now fetch six-figures at auction, while a rich source of items is the humble Alpine furniture she created for various French ski resorts – such as a 1948 pine console sold in 2011 at Chicago's Wright auction house for $68,500.

Carlo Mollino, meanwhile, leads an Italian set also featuring Gio Ponti, plus Ico and Luisa Parisi. Another architect-by-training, Mollino's work in 1940s and 50s contrasted with the dominant sleekness of Italian design, preferring organic shapes he dubbed "streamlined surreal" - evidenced by the insect-like legs of his $3.8m table. A forthcoming Christie's London auction is offering a pared-back Mollino dining suite of table and chairs with a guide price of £750,000.

Like Mollino, the Paresis focused on unique pieces for specific homes, most famously the Zucchi family estate. New York dealer Sebastian + Barquet took $85,000 for a 1951 walnut vanity desk and $150,000 for a coffee table from the Zucchi home, while a console sold for $400,000. Ponti's star sale to date saw a unique 1959 conference table designed for New York's Time-Life building make $104,500 at Sotheby's in 2011.

Veteran Wendell Castle, meanwhile, is tipped by R 20th Century's Evan Snyderman to be the first living American designer to hit the million-dollar mark with his biomorphic wood wonders. Scarcity is a key factor behind Castle's current six-figure status. “People won't let go of them,” says Snyderman simply. And this of a maker with a background in sculpture who said that studying furniture design would have been “a disaster”!  

Wharton Esherick was another master who eschewed furniture training, taking to wood craft only to provide interesting frames for his paintings... Now his stunning sculptural pieces are icons of American Modernism, with a 1930 oak and pear wood dining table fetching $156,000 in 2006 at Rago.

How about future contenders to buy now? Among British makers the charred wood creations of Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley are now appearing at auction, with their Block Seat (£8125) and scorched burr oak table (£5000) sold in 2012 by Phillips de Pury.

Scottish maker Adrian McCurdy splits large logs by wedge and mallet to produce striking, slightly twisted shapes - cleft stools start at £350, chests from £1500, plus complex latticed one-offs. Outstanding pieces from the Tim Stead Workshop include striking 'linking benches' plus a £12,000 single plank burr elm dining table. Michael Fairfax, meanwhile, makes everything from stunning charred wood camera obscuras for a few hundred pounds to hand-carved “labyrinth” cracked oak tables from £1500. 

“I think of them as sculptural objects,” says Fairfax, “but with the functionality of 'furniture'.” It's a perfect summation of objects that so beautifully fuse form and function.


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