PHOTO: ERIC PIASECKI
For a first-class show of drama, few seats compare to the back row of a fine art or design auction. Anticipation builds in the air as bids for one-of-a-kind objects fly at breakneck speed until the gavel comes down and a victor emerges. “I’ve seen people become very emotional at auctions,” says Dallas-based interior designer Michelle Nussbaumer. “Hearts start racing; there’s the thrill of the hunt, and the drama of winning or losing the prize.”
That sense of excitement was evident at Sotheby’s recent Important Design auction in May. The cause of the buzz was a rare six-lot ensemble of Jean Royere furniture. In recent years, a feverish appreciation for French Modernism has emerged and that interest is concentrated on the works of Jean Prouve, Charlotte Perriand and, especially, Royere. Perhaps best known for his iconic polar bear sofa, the self-taught French designer and furniture maker bridged the gap between prewar elegance and postwar innovation.
“People are considering these pieces within a larger context, such as what is complementary and harmonious in an interior,” says Jodi Pollack, co-worldwide head of Sotheby’s 20th-century design department. “Royere is so timeless, and it goes seamlessly with contemporary art.”
But Royere isn’t the only Gallic name on buyer’s lips right now: Interest has been building for the surrealist works of husband-and-wife design duo Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne. Furniture doesn’t get much more fantastical than Francois-Xavier’s whimsical 1970 Sauterelle bar, which incited spirited bidding at auction. Shaped like a giant futuristic grasshopper, the object opens to reveal a sleek bar. Only one other such design exists and it belongs to Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Francois-Xavier Lalanne is also responsible for the wooly Moutons de Laine. The lifelike sheep sculptures have become design darlings in recent years, and a rare grouping from the Reed and Delphine Krakoff collection fetched double its combined estimate at auction.
“There are definitely areas, such as midcentury French design, that have increased in value because more people are looking for it,” says Peter Loughrey, director of modern design and fine art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions and Antiques Roadshow alum. “That said, we are also seeing an uptick in American design. George Nakashima’s work is peaking again. It was hot about 15 years ago, then the marketplace cooled and now it’s popular again. What’s different are the collectors.”
“Fifteen years ago, we were seeing collectors who were buying their 30th piece of Nakashima, but those people are no longer the most prominent players on the scene,” says Loughrey. Today’s collector is more likely to own five pieces by a single designer than 50. For these buyers, the true passion lies in the discovery process–learning about a designer’s work and finding that perfect piece to complement or provide an interesting counterpoint to an interior.
One of the more daring pairings Pollack has witnessed in recent years involves the juxtaposition of postwar works by Jean-Michel Basquiat or Andy Warhol with one of the oldest and most revered names in modern decorative arts, Louis Comfort Tiffany, for a look that is definitely not your grandmother’s parlor. “I think there’s something so timeless and iconic about Tiffany,” she says. “It just goes to show–when the artistry is incredible and there is a high recognizable factor, the work remains relevant.”