The Modernism Show: A Postscript
Sanford Smith’s Modernism Show, which took place this past weekend at the Park Avenue Armory, is an annual bellwether of the modern design market. For much of the past year, this market has been moribund, if not flat lined. I thought the story this week would be about realistic expectations, cautious selections, moderated pricing, and a general attitude of perseverance and stoicism among the dealers. I also thought I would find some interesting vignettes to shoot, as there is always much of visual interest at this show.
I was right about the vignettes, several of which are presented here. I was partly right about the rest. I heard one dealer at the opening talk about “hitting price points” this year, and in general it seemed the dealers were trying to hit it up the middle instead of swinging for the fences, as in past years. But the stoicism was giving way to an incipient optimism—a few weeks ago, Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sale went well over high estimate, a stunning result in this climate, and this quickly trickled down to design at Phillips’ modern design sale on Saturday. At Modernism, I spoke with dealers about these auguries, and heard about decent if not spectacular sales at the show, clients once again using black Amex cards at New York galleries, and a better mood among the crowd than last year. If this momentum carries forward to the December auctions, it might indeed point toward a thaw in the design markets.
Design can excite and challenge, but it can also soothe and calm. Soothing and calming was a good idea this year. The Jacksons, from Sweden, caught this mood and cashed in on it. At a glance, their booth looked comfortable, solid, understated, and inviting. The focal point was a Frits Henningsen armchair, the old leather burnished like a worn-in baseball glove or well-worn shoe. Closer inspection revealed that the handsome fixture hanging nearby was a Gunnar Asplund commission, rare and valuable, but this is beside the point. Visual and tactile comfort is as much a hallmark of Swedish design as grace and elegance. Unlike avant-garde modernisms, where the past had to be forgotten before it was remembered, Swedish modernism maintained an easy dialogue with tradition and history, with the familiar, and this message radiated outward. The Jackson’s success at this year’s show points to both the timelessness and the timeliness of this design heritage.
On to the vignettes, in George Gilpin’s booth, I shot the wall unit he designed and built (custom fabrication is his day job)—sort of Alexander Girard meets "Hollywood Squares," filled with Eames and Nelson pieces for color and pizzaz. Z Modern, from Denver, brought a 1990’s mobile by George Rickey, which anchored an interesting shot. In Good Design, there was a sinuous contemporary cabinet by Antoine Schapira topped by a vintage Carlo Scarpa fixture for Venini. At Mondo Cane, I shot an installation of Stilonvo sconces (which sold, as a group), while at Galere, of West Palm Beach, I caught a Pedro Friedeberg plaque in situ. At Caira Mandaglio, the British gallery, a contemporary cabinet by Roberto Guilio Rida plugged in seamlessly with vintage pieces by Ico Parisi, Gio Ponti, Mario Quarti, and Fornasetti.
Modernity Gallery, from Stockholm, featured a rare “Danish” chair by Gerrit Rietveld, which provided a good photo op paired with an Arne Jacobsen drop chair. If I had to single out one object, though, as my favorite, it would be the Arthur Espenet Carpenter box at Moderne Gallery. According to Bob Aibel, proprietor, the box was featured in the seminal “Wooden” show in 1968, and had remained with the original owner since then. The box had not sold as of Monday afternoon, but Bob wasn’t worried about it. Nor was I—this piece will find a home soon.