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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Finn Juhl: distinctive Danish Modern furniture

NEW YORK – Blending canny craftsmanship with discriminating details, Finn Juhl (1912-1989) introduced the Danish Modern aesthetic to America. Not only an architect, he was also an interior and industrial designer, whose innovative furniture designs, starting in the 1940s, are at the heart of his legacy.

After getting his architecture degree, Juhl began working for the renowned Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen in 1934 but avidly pursued his passion for furniture design, which was self-taught.

A pair of Finn Juhl rare lounge chairs model NV-45 from 1945 made $60,000 in November 2014 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Like other modernist pioneers, Juhl started from scratch without role models or inherited restrictions. He designed by measuring his own body and analyzing how the individual components of the chair should carry the human body,” according to commentary on the website of the House of Finn Juhl, which in 2001 was given exclusive rights from Juhl’s wife to manufacture and relaunch his sculptural furniture. The firm has reissued several of his most iconic designs. “But contrary to his modernist contemporaries, with their streamlined, scaffolding-like structures, Juhl aimed at a more organic, natural form.”

Juhl’s iconic armchair, model 45, takes the easy chair to new heights, breaking away from conventional furniture construction by treating the upholstered back and seat as separate entities from the load-bearing wood frame. Pushing the material’s strength to the maximum and using the expertise of his staff of joiners, Juhl designed a chair whose curves are gracefully simple and sensuous. This chair was one of several pieces that was the highlight of the 1945 Cabinetmakers’ Guild exhibition, where Juhl and master cabinetmaker Niels Vodder exhibited elegant and sculptural furniture that was comfortable yet sensible.

As designers know, the chair is not an easy thing. It needs to be both light yet sturdy and above all comfortable. Famous designer Mies van der Rohe famously said it was almost easier to build a skyscraper than a chair.

This Finn Juhl Chieftain lounge chair from 1949, its first year of production, attained $75,000 in December 2018 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Rather than thinking in terms of practical construction, Finn Juhl had the mind-set of a sculptor, when he shaped a piece of furniture. In the 1940s and 1950s, this way of working had never been seen before,” according to the website of the House of Finn Juhl. Creating pieces that evoked movement and life, Juhl’s goal was to create pieces having what he called a “visual lightness.”

While teaching himself the ins and outs of furniture construction, Juhl first began working with fully upholstered pieces, focusing on the organic shape of the furniture, which became his signature look, but within a few years, he was confident enough to focus on wood as the central material instead of hiding it under a layer of upholstery.

A group of eight Finn Juhl for Niels Vodder Egyptian rosewood chairs in blue upholstery earned $60,000 in May 2018 at Clars Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Juhl’s Grasshopper Chair, designed in 1938, was a daring innovation at the time when furniture was bulky and traditional. This design was showcased with Vodder’s stand at the Guild shows. The chair is aptly named as the back legs and armrests meet the floor on a diagonal, resembling a grasshopper’s back legs bent and poised to jump. At the time, buyers were not overly impressed and the only two examples Juhl brought to the fair, did not sell. Today, however, the design has been reissued and made its debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2019.

While Juhl is best known for his chair forms, he designed a variety of seating furniture, including his Poet sofa, launched in 1941, and the Baker sofa, designed in 1951, the same year that Juhl’s works transfixed American audiences when showcased in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” exhibition. He also designed credenzas and sideboards and over time drew inspiration from American designers, especially Charles Eames. While wood has been his central material up until now, he increasingly began incorporating steel and a new fondness for straight lines and simplicity in his tables, benches and sideboards. Modern sculpture, such as Alexander Calder’s mobiles, also influenced his work.

A Finn Juhl wall-mounted sofa from Villa K. Kokfeldt in Denmark, 1953, realized $60,000 in
November 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Being connected to the landscape was something that Juhl both lived and practiced, and the influence is notable in the organic forms of his furniture,” according to Design Within Reach in Stamford, Conn., which also offers modern furniture and pieces in the tradition of Juhl and others, reissuing vintage designs.

Finn Juhl’s furniture, like any example of good design, has stood the test of time. Made to be comfortable above all else, they exhibit craftsmanship at its best and an appreciation for organic forms and the materials.

Jasper52 toasts Mid-Century Modern designs Oct. 16

Mid-Century Modern is celebrated in stylish and innovative designs offered in a Jasper52 online auction on Tuesday, Oct. 16. Clean lines, organic contours and stylish functionality are all present in this specially curated sale. Furniture, lighting, glassware and other home furnishings fill the 151-lot auction catalog dubbed Sleek Designs: The Mid-Century Modern Sale.

Pair of armchairs by Kurt Ostervig for Jason Møbler, model 301 in teak, 1956, excellent condition. Estimate: $13,000-$16,000. Jasper52 image

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