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American furniture styles changed with the times

NEW YORK – The first settlers to the New World brought what furniture they had with them but as American towns and commerce grew, furniture began to be made here in the late 1600s. The earliest examples likely were highly influenced by Dutch or British styles, but the American aesthetic was developing.

Over the last 200-plus years, American furniture has developed about a dozen distinct styles as consumer tastes changed. Early American furniture was fairly utilitarian and focused on simple forms created for a specific purpose, but American cabinetmakers began making increasingly sophisticated pieces, including high-style pieces for wealthy clients. Whole books have been written on the history of American furniture. so the following guide is a broad-strokes primer of sorts on some of the most popular American antique furniture styles.

William and Mary (1690–1730)

This style of furniture is bulky and strong, having low horizontal profiles and typically made of oak. To combat its overly rectilinear appearance, pieces would be decorated with low-relief carving, paint and applied moldings or turnings to add interest.

As an example, this circa 1750 Pennsylvania William and Mary spice chest, has a somewhat staid and boxy form. Decoration creates visual interest however with a herringbone border on the center of its door in the shape of a circle within a larger herringbone border framing the door’s outline.

A Pennsylvania William and Mary spice chest, circa 1750, 19in tall, attained $58,560 + the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Pook & Pook Inc. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Queen Anne (1730-1760)

Queen Anne furniture, noted for its restrained decoration and curvilinear forms, was among the first styles to use the cabriole leg that defined 18th century furniture. The S-shaped legs on everything from chairs to case pieces were shaped in a convex curve atop a concave curve. Curving chair crests and arms as well as decorative seashell carvings were emblematic of the Queen Anne style.

This important Queen Anne low-back upholstered mahogany chair, having a balloon seat, sold for $70,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Keno Auctions. Photo courtesy of Keno Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Windsor chairs

While a British invention, the ubiquitous Windsor chair is worthy of mention here as it became quite popular on this side of the pond. Philadelphia was the center of Windsor chair production in America as early as the 1740s. These chairs are instantly recognizable by their backs with multiple thin spindles, reclining form and splayed straight legs.

A Philadelphia comb-back Windsor chair made $5,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Wiederseim Associates Inc. Photo courtesy of Wiederseim Associates Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Federal (1790 to early 1820s)

The Federal period encompassing Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Chippendale furniture is all about straight lines and geometry. Legs are mostly straight instead of curved and pieces are distinguished by contrasting veneers and elegant geometric inlay designs. This period of furniture saw great changes in form and style. High chest of drawers fell out of favor and new styles appeared such as the sideboard. Satinwood or mahogany were frequently used as the primary wood for the base, though bird’s-eye and ripple-grain maple are hallmarks of pieces made in New England in this era. Finials, such as on secretaries or bookcases, used common motifs of eagles, draped urns, or an urn and a flame.

A rare North Carolina Federal miniature chest realized $30,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

This two-piece Chippendale desk and upper bookcase, dated 1796, made entirely of walnut serves as proof that highly sophisticated furniture was being made in America this early. Capt. John Cowan, one of the first settlers in Kentucky, commissioned this piece that stayed in his family for 200 years, as a show of his status and success.

A rarity among early American furniture is this 1796 Kentucky secretary that Capt. John Cowan commissioned. It made $440,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2017 at Cowan’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Pennsylvania Dutch (1720 to 1830)

Paint-decorated Pennsylvania furniture is one of the most iconic forms of folk art. Characterized by its straight lines, plain turnings and tapered legs, the use of vibrant paint made these pieces sizzle. Regional forms popularized here saw the introduction of hanging cupboards and wall racks, usually painted with scrolling decoration or common motifs like hearts, tulips and fruit.

A rare Johannes Spitler paint-decorated Shenandoah blanket chest, circa 1790-1800, attained $36,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2019 at Cowan’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Shaker (1780-1860)

Known for their devout religious beliefs, Shakers were guided by three central beliefs: honesty, simplicity and utility, which were evinced in the furniture they made for use in their self-sufficient communities as well as selling to the outside world. Boasting muted colors and clean lines, Shaker furniture is elegant in its simplicity. Simple dovetailed joints and a lack of fussy ornamentation are its hallmarks. A notable form is the Shaker ladder-back chair having horizontal posts on the back that look like ladder rungs.

A Shaker drop-leaf sewing table, probably Hancock, Mass., circa 1840, took $80,000 + the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Classical Empire (1820-1840)

Inspired by the French Restoration period, Classical Empire furniture was made in America by such renowned makers as Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks & Sons, who ran competing firms in New York City. Their furniture tended to scale on the large side and case pieces were distinguished by S- and C-scroll pillars. Meeks Classical Empire sofas typically had scrolled arms and used flame mahogany in the frames.

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe, this Classical rosewood table, 1815-1820, is distinguished by its fine rosewood veneers and satinwood banding. It earned $130,000 + the buyer’s premium in
September 2020 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Revival periods

The second half of the 19th century saw a flurry of Revival styles, including Rococo Revival, Egyptian Revival and Renaissance Revival as furniture began to be mass-produced in the 1860s. Taking design cues from Renaissance architecture, earlier Classical and Romantic styles, or Egyptian architecture, pieces from this era were known for detailed carving, elegant details, applied medallions, ebonized wood or ormolu gilding.

Attributed to renowned furniture maker J.H. Belter is this Rococo Revival rosewood etagere that sold for $85,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

20th century and beyond

Arguably the greatest evolution in American furniture design has been in the last 150 years as tastes changed from the highly ornate Victorian and Art Nouveau furniture styles to the streamlined Art Deco look by the 1930s. Rebelling against the Industrial Revolution, furniture makers such as Gustav Stickley focused on simplicity, creating what came to be known as the Mission style.

Boasting a unique look evocative of midcentury modern furniture is this Paul Evans floating sideboard credenza from his ‘Cityscape’ series, which earned $22,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Joshua Kodner. Photo courtey of Joshua Kodner and LiveAuctioneers

The Midcentury Modern era in the 1950s was a time of rebirth after World War II and this furniture aesthetic was unlike anything that came before. Midcentury designers/makers such as Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, Paul Evans, Paul McCobb and Wendell Castle created comfortable and functional furniture that were works of art in themselves.

LaVerne furniture etched with images

NEW YORK – Philip Laverne (1908-1988) and his son Kelvin (b. 1936) sought to create pieces that were both functional furniture and expressions of fine art. Their approach, their designs, their techniques were unique and thus their works remain instantly recognizable.

Supported by wooden frames, the tables and cabinets were clad in bronze, brass and pewter, which had been cast, carved, etched, incised and patinated. The strong metal forms become showstoppers in an interior, and collectors scroll through auction catalogs to find the best examples.

Philip and Kelvin LaVerne important Bathers cabinet, circa 1968, acid-etched brass, enameled and patinated brass over pewter and wood, 59¼in wide x 15½in deep x 32¼in high. Etched signature to door face. Sold for $85,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2016. Image courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Major surfaces are often covered by low-relief figural scenes inspired by archaeological or art historical sources. Many designs are drawn from Chinese art, while others reflect ancient Greek friezes or even Egyptian wall paintings.

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling was also a theme that appealed to the LaVernes. Another group of furniture from their workshop is more simply ornamented with repeated geometric patterns. Full-bodied sculptural figures were at times used as dramatic table supports. Some designs were issued as a series, others seem one-of-a-kind. Surprises turn up all the time.

Four-door ‘Chan’ cabinet, circa 1970, etched and patinated bronze, pewter, painted wood, Chinoiserie landscape, signed ‘Philip Kelvin LaVerne,’ 32½in high x 60¼ wide x 16in deep. Sold for $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium on June 26, 2020. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Richard Wright has sold many examples at his Chicago-based auction firm and even chose one for his personal collection: “LaVerne furniture is totally unique within American design, and it’s readily identifiable. The pieces pull together all kinds of disparate elements including archaeological and art historical references, which are then applied to some pretty muscular forms. Sometimes the objects are very decorative in themselves, but oftentimes the forms are architectonic and plain with heavy pattern applied to them.

“The materiality is completely essential to the work. A lot of the forms are quite modernist, but with this archaeological treatment done to them, they become very compelling. The surface feels like unearthed old metal. Fortunately for collectors, while some of the furniture is very expensive, some of it is relatively accessible. I actually live with a LaVerne coffee table at my house, and I have young kids – it’s incredibly durable,” he said.

Chan desk, New York, 1960s, etched, patinated and polychromed bronze, pewter and enamel, raised signature to underside, 29¾in x 60¼in x 30¼in. Sold for $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018. Image courtesy of Rago Arts & Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to distinctive forms and decoration, LaVerne furniture has a characteristic patina carefully cultivated through processes developed by the furniture makers. One technique involved burying the metal elements in special soil compounds to achieve the appearance of ancient artifacts. While some tables have an overall dark bronze finish, those with decorative surface patterns use the contrast of dark and light metals to make the design pop out for the viewer. Colored enamels were added to enhance figures in the more elaborate chinoiserie scenes. Because the LaVernes put so much effort into the decoration and patination of their pieces, condition is an important element in determining present value.

After experimenting in the late 1950s, the LaVernes began to produce limited edition designs in the 1960s, some of which are rarer than others. The cabinetmakers’ joint signature is usually clearly visible on the surface, often within the relief scenes. Well-preserved examples may retain a paper label from the team’s New York studio at 46 E. 57th St.

Free form ‘Odyssey II’ cocktail table with double bronze pedestals and acid etched surface of patinated bronze, pewter and enamel, featuring classical scenes based on Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ 18in high x 70¼in wide x 34½in deep. Sold for $17,080. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern and LiveAuctioneers

The cabinetmakers published their own sales catalogs – The Art of Philip LaVerne – which are helpful in determining the names of styles and patterns. The workshop advertised, emphasizing the union of art and functionality, and examples entered collections around the country.

A rare free-form cocktail table sold for $17,080 in March of 2014 at Palm Beach Modern auctions had a printed label for “Philip LaVerne Collection, Works of Art,” that was hand-lettered with the edition, “Odyssey #2.” The table’s top was covered with Grecian scenes inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and the supports were in the form of fluted column sections. According to the auction catalog, Herbert and Belle Lapidus purchased the table in 1967 from the New York studio. Phillip LaVerne told Mr. and Mrs. Lapidus that only one other free form “Odyssey” table had been made and that “Odyssey #1” appropriately had gone to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

Chin Yin coffee table (inset depicts the tabletop), etched, patinated and polychromed bronze and pewter,17in high x 70in wide x 30in deep. Sold for $16,640 + the buyer’s premium in June 2018. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern and LiveAuctioneers

In an interview with Auction Central News, Wade Terwilliger of Palm Beach Modern talked about the market for LaVerne: “People like the craftsmanship. There’s real artistry in the design, and the pieces are functional. You definitely want to have the original patina on them, and most of them do. Sometimes the finish gets rubbed out a little, especially if they have color applied. We often get the ‘Chan’ coffee table.”

“At the auction house, we usually categorize things as ‘Hollywood Regency’ or ‘Traditional Modern’ – but LaVerne is completely by itself. Most of our consignments come out of New York or from Florida – it was popular down here, and we always carry LaVerne. I’ve seen big dining tables that are outstanding, also console tables and center hall tables. Pewter, brass, bronze – there are mixed metals on most of them. The pieces get noticed. Everyone recognizes quality, and there’s that artistic element that captures the viewer’s attention.”

Jasper52 showcases mid-century designs Nov. 18

Spectacular mid-century designs for the home and pop art will go up for bid in a Jasper52 online auction on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Clean lines, organic contours and stylish functionality are all offered in this specially curated sale devoted to the sleek mid-century modern style.

Rabbit cocktail table by Studio Juju for Living Divani, 2012, powder-coated steel, 43 x 49 x 12in. Estimate: $900-$1,100. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Antique Associates at W. Townsend readies Nov. 13 sale

Antique Associates at West Townsend Inc., one of America’s foremost brokers of high-quality antiques, art and antique arms, has gathered a 210-lot online auction that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Friday, Nov. 13. AAAWT’s second such auction features high-quality Americana, furniture, antique arms and Civil War items with reserves at a fraction of retail.

National Fire Insurance Co. eglomise trade sign, circa 1876-1900, 35 x 27in. Estimate: $650-$1,650. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Sam Maloof: a woodworker, plain and simple

NEW YORK – Of all the American woodworkers and furniture designers of the 20th century, perhaps none were at once as celebrated and humble as Sam Maloof (1916-2009), the son of Lebanese immigrants who was born in California and lived and worked there his entire life. The accolades were many: in 1985 he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant, the New York Times called him “a central figure in the postwar American crafts movement,” the Smithsonian Institution declared him to be “America’s most renowned contemporary craftsman” and People magazine dubbed Maloof “The Hemingway of Hardwood.” His furniture resides in the collections of many American museums.

But if anyone attempted to call Sam Maloof an artist, he would quickly correct them. “I am a woodworker,” he would say with typical humility. “I like the word. It’s an honest word.” Maloof worked with wood starting as a child, making a spatula for his mother, plus dollhouse furniture, cars and other toys. In 1948, he and his wife, Alfreda, moved into a house in Ontario, California, where he set up a furniture workshop in the garage. Having little money, he designed and built a suite of furniture for the home, mostly made of salvaged materials and discarded packing crates.

Walnut dining table made circa 1967 by Sam Maloof, numbered 18/67, rectangular with a pedestal base and two leaves (each leaf: 20¾in long) 113¾in wide (fully extended); 39¾in wide; 29in high, sold at Abell Auction for $16,250. Image courtesy of Abell Auction

Word spread of his creations and commissions began pouring in. A friend, Henry Dreyfuss (the noted industrial designer of such classics as the Singer sewing machine and the Hoover vacuum cleaner) commissioned Maloof to make 25 pieces for his Pasadena home. The rocking chair he designed for Dreyfuss was an instant hit and was soon found in the chicest homes – including the White House. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had rockers made by Maloof in the Oval Office. Carter signed a photograph to Maloof, “to my woodworking hero,” in a visit to Maloof’s home.

Maloof’s style was to put function over form, usefulness before artistry. His modern furniture was assembled entirely out of wood (he preferred claro walnut, cherry, oak, rosewood and yew) using no nails or metal hardware at all. These were a perfect fit for the minimalist homes of the postwar period. “He was trying to make other people appreciate what it was like to live with a handcrafted object in which there was a kind of union between maker, object and owner,” according to Jeremy Adamson, author of the 2001 book The Furniture of Sam Maloof.

‘Cradle Hutch’ made in 1971 by Sam Maloof, one of six made, walnut construction, a freestanding cradle hutch with a rectangular outset top over a double-door blanket cabinet secured with a shaped wooden latch, raised atop a central space suspending a slatted rocking cradle over a pull-out changing surface, 80¾in x 58in wide, sold for $43,750 at John Moran Auctioneers on April 25, 2017. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers

Maloof’s chairs, for which he is most famous, have a sculptural quality about them, yet are also very ergonomic and austere in their simplicity. They can be characterized by completely rounded over corners at mortise and tenon joints (which are always plainly visible); carved ridges and spines, particularly on the arm rests; decorative ebony dowels; deep, dished-out seats (always made from several boards glued together); and clear finishes. Everything he made – chairs, cradles, hutches and other furniture pieces – were designed and crafted entirely by hand.

“Sam Maloof’s work is timeless; it is subtly modern and surprisingly sophisticated,” said David Rago, a partner and co-director of 20th /21st Century Design Development at Rago Arts & Auction in Lambertville, N.J. “While his famous rocking chair has a lyrical expression of line, the magic of Maloof’s designs can be found in the details the expertly formed joints, the finishing of the edges, the graining and beauty of the planks, and his use of proportion.”

Executive swivel chair made in 1984 by Sam Maloof in-studio, signed and dated, 52½in tall x 29in wide, sold for $8,960 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Oct. 11, 2015. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Together, these details reveal a mastery of material and form, Rago said, resulting in works that are simple but refined and work in any interior. “I should add that he chose the discipline of a rocking chair as his cornerstone form,” he pointed out. “They are deceptively difficult to make, and yet part of the furniture vernacular for centuries. At one, a rocking chair is basic and functional, but brought to the level of high art by Maloof’s genius as a craftsman and designer.”

“A few years ago, we had a Sam Maloof bench here in the showroom,” said Wade Terwilliger, president and marketing director of Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I recall the woodworker we use – who’s normally pretty reserved – sharing with me at length his awe of Maloof’s craftsmanship. I’m sure some of the humility in Sam’s self-described title of simply “woodworker” is related to his background as the hardworking son of immigrants, but I think there may be more to it than that. The title directs your attention to what he considered most significant – the working of wood.”

Fine and rare bench by Sam Maloof made from bird’s-eye and tiger maple, 30in tall x 38½in wide, est. $30,000-$35,000, lot was passed at an auction held Nov. 26, 2011 by Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Image courtesy of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Terwilliger said Maloof’s pieces are shaped and finished to draw attention to the inherent beauty of the grain. “Wood is both the medium and the subject of a functional sculpture, without disguise or ornamentation,” he explained. “For example, the ebony dowels Maloof often used to join pieces together remain visible, providing color contrast, but are fully smoothed over and integrated into the chair’s form. It’s clear that great effort and attention to detail went into creating something so seemingly simple.”

“Furniture by Sam Maloof continues to resonate with collectors of all kinds as it is sculptural, visually pleasing, timeless and easy to use,” said Jason Stein, director of Modern Decorative Art + Design at Bonhams in Los Angeles. “I once heard him described as ‘a craftsperson’s craftsman.’ The woods he worked with were incredible and his pieces were known to be technically precise and beautifully finished.”

“The market for Sam Maloof designs has been consistent for the past decade,” David Rago said. “It’s strong, but not quite ‘hot.’ Given the relatively small number of works produced, his prices are very fair, generally ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. An interesting comparison is the market for the work of George Nakashima, for which there are over 5,000 auction results with a top price of $800,000. There are only 370 auction results for Sam Maloof and only one lot – a complete dining set – has achieved a price over $100,000, and that was more than a decade ago.”

Fine rocking chair (no. 11) made in 2004 from sculpted ebony walnut by Sam Maloof, signed, dated and numbered with copyright, 47in x 27in, sold for $26,000 at Rago Arts & Auction Center on Jan. 20, 2019. Image courtesy of Rago Arts & Auction Center

It’s hard not see the relative value in the beautifully crafted works of Sam Maloof, Rago said. “That said, the rarity of Maloof’s work counter-intuitively serves to keep prices down because there has never been sufficient availability to generate a broad market. Phil Powell, the New Hope furniture designer, perhaps made a thousand pieces in his lifetime. Though working at the same time as George Nakashima and Paul Evans, in the same town, George and Paul are said to have produced between 35,000 and 40,000 pieces.  The relative paucity of Powell’s surviving work mirrors the market’s response to Maloof.”

Wade Terwilliger said the market for Sam Maloof furniture has held remarkably steady. “His famed rockers hold most of the top spots, and the curviest forms in fiddleback maple and rosewood are the most desirable,” he said. “Beautiful craftsmanship tends to hold value, and I believe the catalog raisonné, well-documented provenance and an active studio lend themselves to a healthy market because there is little question of authenticity.”

Walnut 12-drawer cabinet made circa 1975 by Sam Maloof with dovetail joinery and circular tenon details, an exemplary of Maloof’s exquisite craftmanship, signed with branded manufacturer’s mark to each drawer, 80in wide x 20in deep x 32in tall, sold at Wright for $24,2130. Image courtesy of Wright

Jason Stein said the current market demand for works by Maloof is strong and consistent – “especially for his prized sculptural rocking chairs, cribs and hutches. I see this demand continuing and many collectors have Maloof on their wish lists.” Bonhams holds the world record for Sam Maloof furniture at auction – set in Los Angeles in 2006 for a carved walnut conference table and ten armchairs ($194,250). It also holds the record for a Sam Maloof rocking chair, with an example making $80,500 in 2012. Pieces by Maloof continue to do well at auction.

Maloof’s former residence in Alta Loma, which he purchased as a simple bungalow in 1953, was, over time, transformed by Maloof into a timbered, 22-room house with a hand-carved spiral staircase and door latches shaped like miniature golf clubs. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. Tours of the historic home are given on Thursdays and Saturdays.

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Collectors are flush with cash for commodes

NEW YORK – If you ask most Americans to define commode, they’ll tell you it’s a flush toilet. Period. But to those familiar with antique furniture, the word commode has an entirely different meaning – several meanings in fact. First, a bit of etymology: commode comes from the French word for “convenient” or “suitable” and was derived from the Latin adjective “commodus,” which means the same thing. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition reads: “a piece of furniture with drawers and shelves; in the bedroom, a sort of elaborate chest of drawers.”

French gilt bronze and Jasperware plaque-mounted mahogany commode à vantaux after the model by Joseph Stöckel and Guillaume Benneman, attributed to Francois Linke, late 19th century, 38 x 72 x 29½in with white marble top above three frieze drawers and two cabinet doors opening to six drawers, set with a porcelain plaque with classical figures, the sides also with bronze roundels, est. $8,000-$12,000, sold for $45,000 in an auction held May 28, 2020. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

That pretty much describes a French commode. The word first crept into the vocabulary of French furniture around 1700. Then, it was a cabinet (or chest of drawers), typically wider than it was tall and raised on high or low legs. Commodes were made by French ebenistes (cabinetmakers) who used beautiful wood complemented with ormolu (gilt-bronze drawer pulls). The finishing touch was often a marble slab top, selected to match the marble of a home’s chimneypiece. Such commodes are highly collectible today and can command high prices.

French Louis XV-style marble-top marquetry commode, 19th or 20th century, with ormolu mounts, 38½in tall x 32½in wide, est. $600-$900, sold for $15,000 at an auction held Aug. 16, 2016. Image courtesy of Nye & Company Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Meanwhile, in England (where commode is the standard term for a commode chair, often on wheels, enclosing a chamber pot, used in hospitals and in the homes of invalids), the word commode crept into cabinetmaker’s parlance in London by the mid-18th century. It was used to describe chests of drawers with gracefully curved fronts, sometimes with shaped sides as well. It was called a commode since the finished product was perceived as being “in the French taste.” It was later expanded to describe any piece of furniture with a serpentine front, such as a dressing table, or even a chair seat. These old British commodes are also highly prized by collectors.

Exceptional French bronze mounted commode after Charles Cressent (1685-1768), with elaborate and fine gilt bronze mounts on kingwood, with original thick marble top. Made in France circa 1900, 57in wide, est. $8,000-$12,000, sold for $87,500 at an auction held June 4, 2016. Image courtesy of J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“French and English aesthetics in the 17th and 18th centuries are very different from each other,” said Karen Rigdon, the Silver & Decorative Arts Director at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Choosing one over the other would include personal preference, and consideration of the setting/feeling/ambiance being created. In general, France is considered to have the greatest furniture makers during that time period. There was significant migration in the 18th century.”

Rigdon added, “France was at the center welcoming a great influx of talent from surrounding countries. A level of excellence was achieved in the late 18th century that surpassed earlier work seen in the quality of cabinet making and the refinement of surfaces including marquetry, parquetry and lacquered surfaces, as well as in the decorative/protective gilt bronze mounts.”

Andrew Holter of Nye & Company Auctioneers in Bloomfield, New Jersey, said it certainly wouldn’t be unusual to think of furniture in the 18th century as a vehicle to display a patron’s wealth and social standing. “It’s the modern-day equivalent of parking your Ferrari or Bentley in your driveway,” he observed. “Both scream, ‘I have arrived and I want the world to not only know it, but see it.’ For the 18th century elite, furniture went beyond being simply utilitarian and served as a way to express a patron’s level of sophistication and fashion.”

English George III mahogany serpentine bombé commode, circa 1780, 34in tall x 46in wide, est. $4,000-$8,000, sold for $3,750 at an auction held Nov. 1, 2017. Image courtesy of Nye & Company Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Commodes were a popular form of furniture both because of their practicality, but also because they were great objects to express one’s tastes and preferences, Holter pointed out.  “Ordering furniture in the 18th century was like buying a computer online today. You start with a basic model and then you can add on lots of things.  Cabinetmakers offered a variety of embellishments such as marble top versus a wood top, ormolu mounts versus no mounts, a straight fronted chest versus a reverse-serpentine versus a serpentine chest versus a blocked chest versus a bombé chest. You could request straight bracket feet, ogee bracket feet, a flaring French foot, a pad foot with cabriole legs or a claw-and-ball foot.”

Oftentimes, Holter said, these stylistic embellishments could help a specialist determine where a piece was made. “For example, depending on the stylistic period, French commodes often tend to be flashier or more vibrantly decorated than English commodes. For a Louis XV-style commode, you might expect to see asymmetrical gilt ormolu mounts, perhaps a marble top, wood veneered surfaces and a shaped front. English commodes made in the George II or III periods tend to be either carved from the solid or have slightly more restrained veneers. While you can find ormolu mounts on English furniture, they don’t tend to be as elaborate or as abundant on what are seen on French pieces.”  

Edwardian inlaid book commode, demilune shape, figured satin wood veneers, the centered cabinet doors faced with leather book spines, flanked by convex doors enclosing a shelved interior, 34in x 38½in, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $5,040 at an auction held Sept. 15, 2012. Image courtesy by Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In terms of why a decorator might choose one style over another, Holter feels that would be based purely on the look they are trying to achieve.  “Think Versailles verse Buckingham Palace,” he said.  Both England and France make pieces that are of fabulous quality.  However, the design aesthetic is slightly different.” 

As to the current market value for commodes, Karen Rigdon said there continues to be rising value for signed 18th century examples from both France and England, putting them beyond the means of most people. However, she said, “Unsigned or unattributed commodes are both increasingly available and affordable. Over the last five to ten years, many commodes have come to market due to death, divorce and downsizing, during a craze for disposable furniture. Disposable furniture is easy to buy, and heavily marketed, impressing our minds. A mind shift is worthwhile.”

A sound 18th century English or French commode should be considered, Rigdon offered. “You can often buy excellent pieces for less than a new chest of drawers. This is certainly the case at auction. There is much added value. A well-made example will likely be a focal point in your home, adding character as well as stories of the hunt. If well-chosen and cared for, it will certainly at least hold its value during one’s lifetime, and possibly rise as new appreciation grows for 18th century craftsmanship. Include the next generation in your love, and your prized commode may still be in use in another 250 years.”

Neoclassical parquetry inlaid walnut commode, Continental, likely Italian, late 18th/early 19th century, having a molded rectangular top over three drawers, all with book matched and banded decoration and raised on short, tapered legs, 35in tall x 48¾in wide, est. $2,000-$4,000, sold for $3,410 at an auction held Sept. 24, 2017. Ahlers & Ogletree and LiveAuctioneers

Holter said that generally speaking, the market for traditional furniture – whether it be English or French – has softened over the last 10-15 years. “The one thing that remains constant despite the highs and lows of the market is the demand for top quality pieces,” he said.  “They have remained steadfast and strong. I think the short-term outlook for traditional furniture will remain steady and I am cautiously optimistic for the long-term outlook.” 

Design aesthetics tend to swing in and out of fashion like a pendulum, Holter said. “While the current aesthetic is leaning toward a more modern style now, I am a firm believer that people will soon rediscover the quality, warmth and history that the more traditional pieces bring to the table. Additionally, in an era where we talk about the Green New Deal and the need to be green to save our planet, I say go green, buy antiques and you can feel confident that you are doing your part to recycle these treasures from our past.

Designer furniture stands out in online auction Dec. 7

An eclectic mixture of paintings, sculpture, lighting, furniture and decorative items will be offered in a Jasper52 online auction on Saturday, Dec. 7. Featured are Ludwig Mies van der Rohe chairs, a Michel Ducaroy sofa and a monumental André Hofer painting.

Set of four Mies van der Rohe, Knoll Brno chairs in white leather on a stainless steel flat-bar frame, circa 2000. Estimate: $3,000-$3,500. Jasper52 image

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Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jasper52 auction toasts midcentury modern Sept. 10

Everything needed to outfit a home or office in sleek midcentury modern décor is offered in a Jasper52 online auction to be conducted Tuesday, Sept. 10. Italian designed furniture and futuristic lighting are featured in this 100-lot auction.

Manta dining table by Studio Le Opere e i Giorni, 29½in. high x 107in. long x 53in. wide.
Estimate: $7,000-$8,000. Jasper52 image

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Atomic Age furnishings exude optimistic energy

NEW YORK – Through the Atomic Age, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, developing nuclear power, atomic science and the space race inspired out-of-this-world interior design. Its stylized, instantly recognizable cosmic shapes and motifs endowed utilitarian objects, large and small, with bursts of futuristic, optimistic, peacetime energy.

Millions of kitchens, against a background of steel cabinets and Formica countertops, boasted bright walls, ceramic coffee mugs and soap dispensers patterned with whizzing rockets or dynamic galaxy decorative touches. Others, inspired by structure of the atom, depicted orbiting atomic particles.

Sunbeam atomic clock with circular pink and gold glass face, marked, 16in. diameter. Realized $100 + buyer’s premium in 2005. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Drinking glasses, serving plates and Melamine dinnerware often featured colorful star bursts. Delicate, organic, spidery plant forms and amoeba-like free forms, reflecting strides in x-ray and microscope technologies, adorned place mats and table cloths. Boomerangs, another popular Atom Age motif, not only mirrored magnified bacteria. Used as stylized arrows, they symbolized directional energy fields, capturing movement.

1950s Modern upholstered screen covered with 1950s fabric printed with boomerangs and rectangles in red, blue-green and chartreuse on light gray ground, with steel legs. In as-found condition (stains and tear to fabric). 65¾in. x 58½in. Realized $125 + buyer’s premium in 2004. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bold, aluminum, atomic-inspired lamps graced millions of homes across the country. Desk and ceiling “flying saucers,” which feature gently rounded metal domed shades, were not only popular, but easy on the eye. So were minimalistic floor models, perched precariously on spindly gooseneck, tripod or “cricket” brass legs. Pole tension lamps, whose adjustable cone-shaped shades created focused spots of light, were also great favorites.

Pierre Guariche brass and enameled metal table lamp with adjustable shade, 20in. x 10½in. Realized $1,100 + buyer’s premium in 2006. Image courtesy Rago Modern Auctions, LLP and LiveAuctioneers

In contrast, airy, light-hearted, “bubble” table and ceiling lamps offered warm, soft, diffuse – yet abundant – radiance. George Nelson, for example, coaxed their malleable steel-wire frames and translucent white plastic or sprayed resin into fanciful pear, globe, cigar and elliptical shapes. Gino Sarfatti designed bubble pendant lamps featuring transparent, richly textured, handcrafted Murano glass globes. Angelo Lelli created nickel-plated brass and steel ceiling lights whose radiating branches, tipped with frosted glass spheres, look, for all the world, like planets in orbit.

Angelo Lelli, Arredoluce Stella Chandelier, nickel-plated brass and steel, frosted glass, signed with manufacturer’s label, ‘Made in Italy Arredoluce Monza,’ circa 1950, 51in. diameter, 8½in. high. Realized $19, 000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Three years after Russia’s earth-shattering launch of the Sputnik space satellite, the Sputnik chandelier reached the market. This opulent starburst creation, featuring central spheres with multiple radiating prongs fitted with glowing light fittings, was a favored décor of the day. So was the Sputnik-like dandelion sphere, whose myriad glass blossoms or spiked pinpoints of light evoke their namesake. These high-end, Atomic Age decorative statements were sculptures by day, supernovas by night.

Atomic-inspired table and wall clocks also made dramatic decorative statements. Though all essentially performed the same function, they differed in shape and style. Some bear flat conventional flat faces bright with random atomic motifs. Some, bearing numerous, slender, outstretched arms radiating from round, conventional, central clockworks, resemble cheery sunflowers or sunbursts. Ball wall clocks, which feature circular centers spiked by slender shafts tipped with brilliantly hued balls, indicate time by position rather than by number. Rare models, like George Nelson’s ovoid “Eyeball,” which resembles its name and his striking wooden, watermelon-shaped ones, are particularly desirable.

Bubble Lamp, George Nelson (1908–1986) for Herman Miller, Zeeland, Mich., 1960s
sprayed resin, steel, clear label, 18in. diameter x 16in. high. Realized $250 in 2015. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During this era, designers also produced Atomic-Age inspired furniture. Some pieces, like Adrian Pearsall’s sculptured Gondola sofa, along with scores of anonymously designed coffee tables enhancing middle class living rooms, resemble boomerangs.

Others, rather than embodying atomic motifs, utilize exciting, postwar, state-of-the-art materials. Nelson’s whimsical Marshmallow sofa, for example, features comfy cushions “floating” atop tubular steel frames. Harry Bertoia’s nature-inspired, sculptural Diamond, Butterfly and Bird chairs are wrought from bent, welded, transparent steel wire grids.

Charles and Ray Eames, Side chairs, circa 1960, enameled steel wire, Naugahyde, model no. DKX-1, Herman Miller, retains manufacturer’s label. Realized $1,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Charles and Ray Eames’ sleek, curvy, stools, rockers and tables are fashioned from pliable plywood. These, as well as their celebrated, molded, Fiberglas chairs, realized in shades from neutral to vibrant, ultramodern orange, yellow and blues, have remained popular for decades.

Most Atomic Age pieces at auction, which were acquired from original users, were not only well used, but well loved. Today too, many appreciate their pleasing visual appeal infused with optimistic energy.

Jasper52 interiors sale Aug. 7 steeped in European panache

A substantial and wide-ranging auction titled Artful Interiors: Decorative Art & Furniture will be presented online Wednesday, Aug. 7, by Jasper52. Bidders will discover an array of decorative objects—antique to modern—to enhance their abode.

Pair of new German-made Art Deco-style armchairs in Macassar wood and piano lacquer, upholstered in high-quality gray fabric. Estimate: $7,000-$8,000. Jasper52 image

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Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.