Judith Leiber, 97, Dies; Turned Handbags Into Objets d’Art

Stella Blum, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 1983, once said that describing Judith Leiber as an accessory designer was “a little like calling Louis Comfort Tiffany a designer of lighting fixtures.”

Her handbags were often on view in museums and are in the permanent collections of a number of them, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Historical Society. Ms. Leiber nevertheless demurred when Andy Warhol described her bags as works of art. “Truthfully, I don’t consider them art,” she said. “I’m an artisan.”

Although she designed luxurious handbags with discreet clasps and frames for daytime, she was best known for her imaginative and eye-catching evening creations, among them colorfully beaded bags in animal, flower, fruit and egg shapes, and bags shaped like boxes and shells with variations on antique Asian motifs.


Geometric jet and rhinestone boxes. Clockwise from left: octagon box, 1986; clover shaped box, 1989; oblong box with onyx and rhinestone trim, 1985; oval box with jet and rhinestone, 1992; oblong box with jet, rhinestone and pearl decorations, 1973. Credit John Bigelow Taylor

Her classically shaped metal evening bags were built of cardboard and sent to Italy, where they were stamped in brass. The animal forms and more complex shapes began as sculptured wax models and were also sent to Italy to be copied in metal. Feet and ears were cast separately and soldered on; other parts and touches, like the head of a horse or the bow on a cat, were stamped in two halves and joined seamlessly.

The gold plating was done after the bags were returned to America. So was the encrusting of the bag in rhinestones and other beads.

A number of Ms. Leiber’s clients amassed scores, and in several cases hundreds, of her designs, despite price tags that reached well into four figures for each bag.

At major charity events, it was common for a woman who had left her Leiber evening bag on the table while she danced to find on her return that other guests had gathered around her table to admire it. Occasionally a bag would disappear, returned only when admirers had finished passing it around.


A frog minaudiere, from 1979, was in Ms. Leiber’s personal collection. Credit Corcoran Gallery, via Associated Press

“Sensuous and tactile, they ask to be picked up,” said Dorothy Twining Globus, a former director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Design.

Most of Ms. Leiber’s evening bags, particularly the glittering metal creations, were designed to hold a bare minimum of necessities. She allowed that lipstick, a handkerchief and a $100 bill might possibly fit. A $100 bill? Not small change, she admitted, but not unreasonable for a Leiber bag owner. As for carrying such necessities as eyeglasses, keys and a few other odds and ends, she would ask, “What’s an escort for?”

Ms. Leiber created five collections a year, in all about 100 designs. She said she was inspired by paintings, museum pieces, artifacts and nature. One of her most popular bags was shaped like a snail; another, an example of the commonplace made uncommon, was fashioned from an antique quilt and enhanced with bits of colored glitter.

The women who carried Leiber bags included first ladies, queens and princesses, and celebrities like Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Diana Ross and Joan Sutherland. Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a bag during a visit to California, and Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the Soviet leader, received one from Barbara Bush.


«Lightning» egg with drop-in chain, 1971. Credit John Bigelow Taylor

Mrs. Bush carried a Leiber design at her husband’s inaugural ceremony. She also had one of the Leiber metal bags shaped, with slight variation, to resemble Millie, her springer spaniel. It was later duplicated and sold for $2,500. Other first ladies were customers as well: Nancy Reagan ordered white satin Leiber bags for both her husband’s inaugural balls, and Hillary Clinton had a bag modeled after Socks, the family cat.

But even the first ladies couldn’t compete in patriotism with a Texan who was invited to one of the Clinton inaugurations and ordered a bag beaded with the stars and stripes on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other.

Many of Ms. Leiber’s customers used the bags for aesthetic purposes as well as practical ones. Some displayed them in a vitrine or étagère, and one Los Angeles matron invited her friends, their Leiber bags and their husbands to a dinner party. When they arrived, she took all their bags and lined them up on a mirror, flanked with votive candles, running down the center of the dining table. It was a table decoration not soon forgotten.

Ms. Leiber maintained that a story of a husband who had given his wife 14 Leiber bags in seven years and wanted them back as part of a divorce settlement was not apocryphal. “I could retire on your Leiber bag collection,” he reportedly said. The wife kept the bags.


The Leibers’ wedding engagement portrait from 1946. Credit The Leiber Museum

Ms. Leiber was born Judith Marianne Peto in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1921. Her parents, Emil and Helen Peto, hoped that she would become a chemist and repeat the success of a relative who had developed a complexion cream. In 1939, she was sent to England to pursue scientific studies, but World War II intervened and her theoretical cosmetics empire vanished.


“Hitler put me in the handbag business,” Ms. Leiber said.

Back in Budapest, Ms. Leiber, who was Jewish, enrolled in an artisan guild, which still accepted Jews, although fascism was on the ascent in Hungary. Her training began with sweeping the floors and cooking the glue. By the time she had completed her guild training, first as an apprentice and finally as a master, the war was raging.

She knew all the stages of handbag manufacture, but there was no place to use this knowledge because Jews were being sent to concentration camps. She and other family members escaped that fate when they were pressed into service sewing army uniforms. She also began a small handbag business at home, using whatever materials she could find, and after the war sold some to American soldiers stationed in Hungary.

Mr. Leiber was an Army Signal Corps sergeant in postwar Budapest when he and Ms. Leiber met. He was working as a radio operator maintaining contact between Vienna and Budapest. They married in 1946 and the next year left for New York, Mr. Leiber’s hometown.


Pop art-inspired box, onyx lock, drop-in chain, 1990. Credit John Bigelow Taylor

With her training, Ms. Leiber had no difficulty finding work in her adopted country. She became part of what she called “strudel assembly lines” at a number of handbag manufacturers until 1963, when her husband decided that they should open their own business.

They began in a small loft. “I knew from the beginning what I was going to do,” Ms. Leiber said. “I was going to make the best.” She designed and supervised the manufacture of her bags, and Mr. Leiber looked after the business end.

Ms. Leiber’s sister, Eva Ecker, died in 2015. No immediate family members survive.


A Tutankhamen-inspired monkey handbag, 1989. Credit Corcoran Gallery, via Associated Press

In time, Ms. Leiber’s designs were rarely sold from handbag departments. They were generally featured in specially created Leiber sections and boutiques in major department and specialty stores, both in this country and abroad.

Ms. Leiber received most of the fashion industry’s major prizes. She was given a Coty Fashion Award in 1973 and the Neiman Marcus Winged Statue for Excellence in Design in 1980. She was voted accessories designer of the year in 1994 by the Council of Fashion Designers.

The Leibers sold their business in 1993, for a reported $16 million, to Time Products, a British firm in the watch distribution business. Ms. Leiber remained the firm’s designer until 1997.


Judith and Gerson Leiber in November 2016 in Mr. Leiber’s studio in East Hampton, N.Y. Credit Lindsay Morris for The New York Times

In recent years, retrospective exhibitions in New York have showcased the talents of both Leibers. (Some of Mr. Leiber’s work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) In 2016 the Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan presented “The Artist & the Artisan,” and in 2017 the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook put on “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags & the Art of Gerson Leiber.” Also in 2017, the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan gave Ms. Leiber a one-woman show, “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story.”

Throughout her career, Ms. Leiber was often asked if she ever carried handbags other than her own. She had a standard reply.

“I either carry my own or a paper bag,” she would say, “and I won’t carry a paper bag, so you figure it out.”


Blue satin tote with rhinestone ring handles, 1975; and black suede frame bag with tubular rhinestone handle, 1993. Credit John Bigelow Taylor Continue reading the main story

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Frick Collection, With Fourth Expansion Plan, Crosses Its Fingers Again

“The garden becomes the new center of the campus,” Mr. Wardropper said in a recent interview at the museum. “It’s a beautiful garden — always was. Now we’re going to make the most of it.”

The Frick ended the last design process feeling battered by — and somewhat bitter about — critics who raised concerns about protecting the museum’s intimate scale and preserving the garden.

“Gardens are works of art,” Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said in an interview at the time. “This one is in perfect condition by Russell Page, one of the pre-eminent garden designers of the 20th century, and it should be respected as such. It’s as important as a tapestry or even a painting, and I think the museum is obliged to recognize its importance.”

Had the museum been able to build its addition in the garden, Mr. Wardropper said last week, the Frick would have gained “a proper loading dock” and “we wouldn’t have to close” for an estimated two years during construction. (The museum is talking to other institutions about continuing its activities in borrowed spaces during that hiatus.)

But he said he doesn’t feel as if the museum is settling for less. Instead, he said, the Frick has had to be more resourceful in repurposing 60,000 square feet of existing space and surgically adding 27,000 square feet, in part by building in the rear yard of the museum’s art reference library on East 71st Street.

“We’re able to achieve everything we need,” Mr. Wardropper said. “I think we’ve come up with a more elegant plan and a more rational one.”

The project, which is expected to cost $160 million, is to begin in 2020 and take about two years to complete.

Mr. Wardropper said he still firmly believes in the reasons behind the effort: to increase exhibition space and to improve circulation, amenities, infrastructure and wheelchair accessibility — trying to meet the needs of modern audiences while honoring the building’s jewel-box quality.


A rendering of the reception hall looking toward the Russell Page garden. Credit Selldorf Architects

The museum’s collection of about 1,400 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and decorative arts — including works by Rembrandt, Goya, Vermeer and Renoir — “has more than doubled since the Frick opened in 1935,” Mr. Wardropper said. “We haven’t added more than 1,700 square feet in 80 years.”

For the first time in its history, the Frick family’s private living quarters on the second floor will be open to the public, helping to create 30 percent more exhibition space — including a permanent gallery for the new Scher Collection of portrait medals — and highlighting the experience of seeing art in an elegant home.

“The Frick has always been one of my favorite museums because you get up close to the art and you can respond to the domestic spaces in your own way,” Ms. Selldorf said. “You’ll be able to come to the museum and do the exact same thing you do today, except that you’ll be able to go up the stairs and see these rooms.”

The new design seems less likely to prompt outrage, given that the garden will be preserved, the new second level will raise the height of the lobby by less than five feet, and the museum is adding just two more floors above the mansion’s music room. Moreover, both of these additions will be set back from the street.

“You will only see it if you’re all the way back at the corner,” Ms. Selldorf said. “The closer you get, the less you see of it.”

The building addition behind the library will be the same height as the library: seven stories.

The renovation’s aesthetic will also be understated and honor the original building’s aesthetic, using materials like Indiana limestone. “You want it to be part of the existing volume, but have its own identity,” Ms. Selldorf said. “It’s not apologetic, but at the same time it’s not about style.”

The renovation will open the reception area, which currently becomes congested, by removing the existing circular stair to the lower level and relocating the gift shop to the second floor. A new staircase will lead down to the new coat check, bathrooms and auditorium. (The current 147-seat music room is acoustically challenged and so small that the museum must constantly turn people away.)

The newly configured underground spaces will eliminate the low-ceilinged galleries that could not accommodate certain works. The current show of life-size portraits by the Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán, for example, had to be displayed on the main floor, displacing a portion of the permanent collection.

The Frick will also get its first dedicated space for the 100 school groups that visit every year. (They will enter the new education center through the library’s 71st Street entrance.)

Mr. Wardropper said the Frick’s $30 million operating budget is expected to increase by $1 million or $2 million after the renovation, and its $22 admission fee is likely to go up by an undetermined amount.

Given its three previous attempts to expand in recent years — in 2001, 2005 and 2008 — the Frick is hoping to get it right this time.

“This is the one,” Mr. Wardropper said.

Over the next few months, the Frick plans to meet with some 75 community organizations and others to present the project. Museum officials have already had initial informal discussions with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has to approve the project since the Frick is in a landmark mansion, designed by Carrère and Hastings for the industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

Three former members of that commission opposed the previous plan, along with a coalition, Unite to Save the Frick, that included architects and designers. Facing what the museum called “protracted legal battles” in pushing its plan forward, the Frick decided to go back to the drawing board.

With this iteration, Mr. Wardropper said he expects some controversy, and he is steeling himself for another round.

“Are people going to have objections? Sure; it’s New York,” he said. “But I believe this is necessary for the Frick, and I’m willing to go up on the barricades one last time to make it happen.”

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To Avoid More Racist Hoodies, Retailers Seek Diversity

Fast fashion giants like H&M and Zara are hiring diversity managers and using screening technologies to catch offensive designs before shoppers do.

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In Mr. Abloh, Louis Vuitton has hired its first African-American designer and a street wear specialist for its growing luxury men’s line.

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When a 21st-Century Family Moves Into a 12th-Century Castle

AS A CHILD in Bologna, the curator Alice Stori Liechtenstein was enchanted by a scene in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film, “The Leopard,” in which the young nobleman Tancredi is asked how many rooms are in his family’s castle. “No one knows, not even Uncle,” he responds. “He says a palace in which one knows every room isn’t worth living in.” Twenty years later, in the early aughts, she posed the same question to her future husband, Alfred Liechtenstein, when they first visited his ancestral home, Schloss Hollenegg, in the east Austrian hills. “I don’t think I’ve been in them all,” he replied, even though he had inherited the castle, which has been in his family for nearly two centuries, when he was 26. (There are 52 rooms total, for the record.)

Alfred, now 45, always knew Schloss Hollenegg was a magical place — like Disneyland, only real — with its Renaissance-style courtyard built by Abel von Hollenegg and renovated in 1550, its magnificent ballroom painted by Philipp Carl Laubmann in 1750 and its Baroque chapel open to local residents on Sundays. Portraits of his ancestors line the hallways, and a fresco of a family tree stretching back about 30 generations covers the library’s vaulted ceiling. For Alfred, who grew up near the palace, Hollenegg was inexorably linked to his family; not to care for it as an adult would have been an unthinkable breach of duty.

But his 39-year-old wife, as she says, “fought against this place for 11 years.” Before they relocated to the rural castle in 2014, her life was unquestionably metropolitan; after attending boarding school in England and university in Milan, she began creating exhibitions for the city’s annual Furniture Fair, eventually counting as clients the Milanese studio Atelier Biagetti, the online retailer Yoox and La Triennale di Milano. When she met Alfred, she was in graduate school in Barcelona, renting a one-bedroom apartment. “Living in a castle in the countryside was not the plan,” she says, so the couple compromised by moving to Graz, 50 minutes from Hollenegg, which has an international airport. At first, she thought the castle would be a weekend getaway, but trying to manage her career throughout Europe, three young children and two homes quickly became untenable; and so, after a decade or so in Graz, the castle became the family’s main residence.

Slide Show

Time’s Arrow

CreditSimon Watson

Like many very large old houses — and especially the hundreds of privately owned, inhabitable castles in Austria — Schloss Hollenegg was in a state of neglect; it hadn’t been modernized since Alfred’s grandmother died in 1974. The couple had to install proper bathrooms (previously, there were old toilets hidden behind screens in the hallways) and build an internal staircase. (The only access to the third-floor bedrooms was through the outdoor arcades.) Today, the family inhabits less than half of the 21,500-square-foot property, and apart from the early 18th-century Chinese wallpaper and the 18th-century kachelofen (German wood-burning clay stoves), the private quarters are contemporarily quotidian: the kids’ rooms scattered with plastic toys; there’s a projector mounted in the living room for movie nights; and the simple kitchen crowded with stainless steel appliances is smallish by American standards. But many of the largely unused spaces, from the staterooms with their 17th-century silk-covered walls, to the sumptuous “green room” with its original coffered ceiling, lack heat or electricity, which helps preserve their finishes in near-perfect condition. Despite the fact that the castle hadn’t been fully occupied since 1991, when Alfred’s grandfather died, all of its rooms require constant upkeep, even the uninhabited ones: There is silver to be polished, plaster to be patched, floors to be waxed. A significant portion of the income Alfred derives from his family’s timber business — the grounds are thicketed with larches and spruces — goes toward property maintenance.

There is, after all, 900 years of history to maintain. The first records of the castle begin in 1163, but the structure is a palimpsest of a near-millennium of architectural trends: The worn limestone of the Renaissance-style stairway dates from 1577 and the bedrooms, with their Flemish tapestries and four-poster beds, from the late 18th century. The couple tried to restore the house with as many historically correct materials as they could — lime plaster to repair the delicate ceiling details, reclaimed wood to mend damaged parquet — but decided that any new additions would be unapologetically modern: their way of adding their names to the house’s lineage and writing themselves, and their era, onto its walls. Upon entering the residence, you’re struck with the first of these contributions, a trippy wallpapered and mirrored elevator by the German designer Markus Benesch, who covered the walls and floors with a disorienting pattern of Op Art Dalmatian spots. “It was a bit of shock the first time I saw it,” Alfred says.


House Tour | Schloss Hollenegg

Fifteen things we love in the Liechtenstein family’s 12th-century castle.

By BERTRAND LE PLUARD on Publish Date March 21, 2018. Photo by Bertrand Le Pluard. Watch in Times Video »

DESPITE THESE NEVER-ENDING renovations, Alice never quite felt she possessed the castle; something about it always frustrated her attempts to make it as much hers as her husband’s. Then, in 2015 (around the time she reoriented her freelance business from exhibition design to personal curatorial projects), she decided that instead of the house merely being her dependent, it would become her partner. First, she conceived a showcase in Graz, inviting 23 designers whose work straddled art and design, including, among others, the Scottish designer Dean Brown and Peter Mabeo from Gaborone, Botswana, whose furniture fuses African craftsmanship with European influences. After being “surprised when nearly everyone said yes,” she says, Alice had a more ambitious idea: If Hollenegg was far from the world of contemporary design, why not bring that world to Hollenegg? In 2016, she asked Brown, along with the Viennese studio Mischer’Traxler, known for conceptual pieces that blend handicraft with technology, and the Italian duo Dossofiorito, whose work often includes plants, to be her first designers-in-residence. They each spent a few weeks living at the castle, collaborating with Alice to create a site-specific work that would remain in Hollenegg’s permanent collection, residing alongside the centuries-old furnishings. Brown installed a multidimensional étagère in a passageway overlooking one of the two courtyards to showcase various treasures collected over the years, such as an urn by Hilda Hellstrom and a collection of vases by Studio Furthermore. Dossofiorito created glass vases inspired by antique ceramics to hold bulbs, an homage to Alfred’s grandmother, Princess Ludmilla, who loved gardening.


On the Cover: Schloss Hollenegg is featured in T’s March 25 Design issue. Here, a guest bedroom. Credit Simon Watson

Alice now chooses a few residents annually; with these designers, she is alternately nurturing and stern, encouraging them to draw on the history of the Schloss, to “explore all the rooms and open all the drawers,” but not to get so lost that they don’t finish their projects. Last fall, the Viennese design studio BreadedEscalope encountered in their wanderings the 19th-century diaries of Alfred’s ancestor Heinrich Liechtenstein, an adventurer who hunted buffalo with U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and brought back redwood saplings from California, which now tower over the castle’s walls. Alice let them cut down one of the trees to carve into a table and pair of stools.

The residents’ pieces debut each May at a group show installed throughout Hollenegg, along with items from about 20 other visiting international designers whom Alice invites to present work. Last year’s exhibition was titled “Morphosis,” referencing gradual but important adaptations that often go unnoticed. The opening night drew guests from Europe and the Middle East who danced to music played by a D.J. from Ibiza, injecting youth and life into rooms that are normally shuttered and silent. Alice opened the castle to the public for the following month, attracting curious locals who had lived in Hollenegg’s shadow their whole lives yet had never seen its interiors. This year’s theme is “Legacy,” prompting designers to explore the personal and collective importance of heritage, which has captivated Alice since hosting Hollenegg’s first show, “Slow,” three years ago. Then as now, inspired by the pace of her more remote life, she wanted to re-examine the negative connotations that slowness has taken on in a culture that values the technological, the futuristic and the fast above all else. Indeed, now that Alice has embraced her countryside castle, she’s developed a broader sense of family and community, but also of time itself. “When you live in the city it’s all about me: my apartment, my job,” she says. “Now, I see life on a larger scale — it’s not about the next generation, but the next three generations. The trees Alfred plants today will be cut by our grandchildren.”

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Design Report: Three Venerated Design Companies Look Back to Move Forward


The textile giant Maharam, born from a Lower East Side pushcart at the turn of the 20th century, has long pursued collaborations with contemporary industrial designers, including Berlin-based Hella Jongerius and Munich’s Konstantin Grcic. But perhaps its most fertile relationship in recent years has been with the Dutch husband-and-wife team of Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings, both in their mid-40s, whose eponymous Amsterdam studio has designed fabrics for Maharam that speak to their love of soft yet bright colors, such as azure blue and cotton-candy pink, as well as grid-based patterns.

Clockwise from top left: an antique darning sampler that inspired their designs for Maharam’s upcoming fabric range; a mug from Maharam’s first foray into housewares; dishware from the collection.CreditCourtesy of Scholten & Baijings

Now, the couple and Maharam are uniting to introduce a line of housewares and accessories created in collaboration with several Japanese craftsmen. There is a stackable wooden stool manufactured by Karimoku New Standard, its seat upholstered in a variety of Maharam fabrics (three of them by Scholten & Baijings) and a five-piece collection of colorful, geometric porcelain dishware produced by the Japanese ceramics company 1616 / Arita Japan. “Connecting Maharam with the level of work you find in Japan was incredibly satisfying,” Scholten says.

Yet even as Maharam makes its first foray into housewares, the brand isn’t neglecting its roots. Mary Murphy, the company’s top design executive, recently introduced Scholten & Baijings to a bygone craft from Holland that was unfamiliar to them: composition paper-size patchwork darning samplers made by young girls in the 18th and 19th centuries, each featuring a dozen or so colorful, complicated stitch patterns originally intended to mend clothes. Scholten & Baijings, always ready to embrace a new idea (however old), reinterpreted these embroidered motifs for Maharam’s latest textile range, to be released in July, elevating the homespun look with Mondrian-like flair.


For the 15 years that Tom Helme and his business partner Martin Ephson owned Farrow & Ball, the British paint manufacturer known for its moody shades — and names — including Savage Ground (a stonewashed yellow) and Smoked Trout (a red-tinged taupe), Helme constantly worked in the one-dimensional paradigm of wall color. “I was ready for a new challenge,” he says now, more than a decade after selling that company in 2006.

The pair’s latest venture, a fabric line called Fermoie, has allowed him to establish a more well-rounded Weltanschauung. Rich not merely in color, but in pattern and texture, the collection’s Anglophilic brio is instantly recognizable; it feels witty but never twee. Unlike other textile makers who saturate cotton and linen with pigment, Fermoie dyes only the surface of the twill — “just kissing the top,” says 62-year-old Helme, who was once a decorating adviser to the United Kingdom’s National Trust — lending it a subtle depth. The seven-year-old company’s newest fabrics, which are also sold as cushions and lampshades, come in jewel shades of amethyst and tourmaline, with small ikat patterns or vivid splatters.

From left: Carskiey, Helme’s Scottish estate, is decorated using Fermoie fabric and lampshades; two new textiles.CreditCourtesy of Fermoie (2); Joshua Scott

Helme found inspiration in the extensive renovation of his home, Carskiey Estate, a 13-bedroom 1908 Scottish manor house on 7,500 acres — complete with a rambling herd of Aberdeen Angus — on the Kintyre peninsula’s southeastern tip. He splits his time between the new Fermoie showroom on Pimlico Road in London, the company’s manufacturing plant in Wiltshire and this wild backdrop, where he often researches and sketches in a capacious library with views of the moors. “Carskiey is an amazing place to work,” he says. “Your mind is so free.”


When the furniture designer and interior architect Christian Liaigre opened his Paris studio in the late 1980s, he renounced the opulent embellishment that distinguished that era’s interiors in favor of a polished, angular minimalism that still resonates today. His apartments and houses for Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld and Larry Gagosian introduced a new visual vocabulary to interior design: Jacquard valances and chintz were replaced by squared-off white armchairs and low, dark wenge tables.

Clockwise from bottom left: Meyer’s 2017 Hestia lounge chair; a dramatic staircase she created for a client in Munich; an interior design project in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture; the Nagoya desk, in leather and oak, designed by Meyer.CreditProduct shots: Nicolas Héron (2). Interiors: Mark Seelen (2)

Now 73, he has finally left the company, naming his longtime protégée, 45-year-old Frauke Meyer, the company’s creative director. (His wife, Déborah Comte-Liaigre, remains as artistic director of the company’s interior design service.) Meyer worked with Liaigre for 18 years and is committed to maintaining his streamlined aesthetic while lending a “different eye.” The furniture and lighting may become “a little more feminine and related to fashion,” she says, “maybe a bit more playful.” This approach will announce itself first in her design for the company’s new international flagship in Paris’s Eighth Arrondissement: She intends to make the commercial space in the store more homelike, contextualizing the lush yet understated furniture with flea-market finds such as feather sculptures and contemporary art. As she says, “I want people to realize that Liaigre can also be poetic in its simplicity.”

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Front Burner: Last One In Is a Rotten …


The Egg House has a foyer, kitchen, hallway, bedroom, garden and pool. Credit Rendering by 3T Studio

A pop-up house, or in New York terms, a six-room duplex decorated with eggs as its theme, will be open to visitors starting April 7. Tickets are now on sale. It’s a whimsical project created by Sense Studio, a group of young designers from New York schools, including the Parsons School of Design and New York University. They have worked in eggy aromas, sounds and some egg items to taste in the home of a fictional egg who moves to New York. Food items will be served free, and participants can also buy egg snacks and egg-shaped gifts from vendors, including Egg Shop and Breakfast Club: Egg House, April 7 to June 27; tickets, $18 for adults, $12 for children under 10 and people 65 or older; theegg.house, 195 Chrystie Street (Stanton Street).

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By Design: The Women Responsible for the Look of Your Next All-day Cafe


Anna Polonsky (left) and Amy Morris, who run the branding and interior design firm the MP Shift, at De Maria, a restaurant they designed in downtown New York. Credit Rich Gilligan

ON A FALL afternoon at De Maria, a year-old restaurant in New York’s NoLIta neighborhood, the flat city light pours in from a wall of windows onto square tables covered in worn pistachio-green and navy leather. Diners can sit on squat wooden chairs, a tan-leather banquette or felt-topped stools at the bar, which is lit by orblike pendants and backed by a Bauhaus-via-Brazil geometric tile mural. They might order a chai latte, which arrives in a stoneware mug made by Brooklyn’s Workaday Handmade, or a cured-salmon and coconut grain bowl, off seasonal menus that are available from early in the morning until late at night.

Beyond the virtuous food, the space itself is somehow salubrious, as if solely by being here you are improving your life. Along with places like Kismet in Los Angeles, June’s All Day in Austin and Res Ipsa in Philadelphia, De Maria is part of a new class of American restaurants — or rather, “all-day cafes” — that combine highly specific, instantly recognizable décor with visually pleasing riffs on health-store classics like flaxseed banana bread and acai. These new cafes, all of which owe a debt to New York’s abstemious Dimes, which opened in Chinatown in 2013, present amiable aesthetic experiences that feel ready-made for Instagram: Many of these rooms share the same natural light, blond wood chairs and copper details that have come to evoke a kind of Scandinavian-inflected, aspirational millennial apartment, which the cafes themselves tend to resemble.

De Maria’s interior, in particular, is the work of the MP Shift, a Chinatown-based design and branding studio that, since its founding three years ago, has created variations on this look for several New York City restaurants and is now expanding throughout the country — as well as to Paris, London and Sydney. The studio was established by Amy Morris and Anna Polonsky (the M and P of the name, plus shift as in “late”), who met a decade ago through mutual friends, when Morris was a marketing consultant and Polonsky was a managing partner at a culinary events company. The young chefs and restaurateurs they encountered in those jobs were often interested in developing independent projects but lacked the proper guidance, so the two women decided to build an agency that consolidated graphics, interiors and brand-direction.

If it’s well established that we eat with our eyes, then the MP Shift is selling a related truth: In our digital age, a restaurant’s interior must be as satiating as its food. Officially, Morris and Polonsky have little to do with what’s on a client’s menu (aside from its logo, typefaces and layout), but they have tended to partner with chefs who prefer serving things like cerulean spirulina smoothies and magenta-hued radicchio salads that feel intended for future snapshots. The plating, too, reflects an understanding of what appeals to these restaurants’ intended psychographic: It’s heavy on swooshes of creamy sauces and bright, clashing layers of tropical fruits or local vegetables in flattened, de Kooning-esque compositions, often rendered atop wide, shallow clay plates and bowls. The MP Shift doesn’t tell the kitchen staff how to assemble their ingredients, but they don’t need to; chefs these days must think as much like designers as they do cooks — indeed, their success depends upon it.


At left, the velvet-clad seating area at Brooklyn’s Golda. At right, the cafe’s custom oak-and-tile bar, with a white planter by Chen Chen & Kai Williams. Credit Heidi’s Bridge Photo

Golda’s acai yogurt bowl with lavender honey, oats, grains, fresh and dried fruits, hazelnuts and bee pollen. Credit East Studio

What the MP Shift does do is help ensure that this all-day fare remains visually appealing no matter the hour, while also providing a growing community of urban freelancers a sort of idealized living-room-as-office, allowing a public space to masquerade as a private one. “In the morning, everyone is on their laptop here; people are spending more time in restaurants as their third space,” Morris says of De Maria, referencing a concept by the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who argued in 1989’s “The Great Good Place” that communities thrive in social spaces beyond homes and offices. These days, she says, “You’re asking for a restaurant to be more than just food.”

RESTAURANTS, OF COURSE, have always been about more than just the food, whether it was New York’s Four Seasons, designed in the International Style by Philip Johnson and William Pahlmann in 1958, or the organic austerity of the French Laundry, opened in Napa County in 1978, which for decades has defined a particular indoor-outdoor Northern Californian reverie. Meals worth traveling for are usually complemented by service and décor that’s meant to soothe, excite or even dazzle in person. But now that every diner has a camera in her handbag, restaurateurs have been forced to acknowledge that what they’re creating is not just a place where people consume meals but an aspirational space that, for many who experience it, exists only online. So even casual cafes — the sort that the MP Shift often designs — have to be stunning and distinctive enough to woo potential diners.

Morris and Polonsky’s projects often reflect the idea that these places become most enticing when filled with the same global, minimalist details (imported tiles, Alvar Aalto stools, oak tables) that appeal when encountered on social media, whether in pictures of other restaurants, or even of homes or hotels. “They asked me to open a Pinterest account,” says Gonzalo Goût, the co-owner of Verde, an erstwhile salad counter in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, who hired the MP Shift in 2016. All of Verde’s ingredients came from the farmer’s market, so Goût used his virtual mood board to create a look that “conveyed that sense of the natural,” he says. Following this exercise, Morris and Polonsky built a dramatic counter of triangular slices of green and pink marble, which also adorned the facade as terrazzo. The final touch was the logo, with the restaurant’s name rendered in a fat, cheery pink-and-green sans serif.


The arch in De Maria’s dining room is flanked by Cedar & Moss brass lighting. Credit Rich Gilligan Photo

At left, duck breast with charred eggplant jam and rutabaga at New York’s Ferris, for which the MP Shift designed the visual identity. At right, De Maria’s dining room features paintings by the Brooklyn-based duo Dylan Dylan on a wall of wooden slats. Credit From left: Noah Fecks; Rich Gilligan

As Morris and Polonsky’s portfolio grows, new clients increasingly reach out because they want to replicate a detail that they’ve seen only in photographs. In Houston, Kelly Barnhart will soon open Vibrant, an all-day cafe serving “adaptogenic potions” and grain salads out of a former laundromat. She was impressed with De Maria after seeing the space in a magazine, and brought the MP Shift on as consultants last spring. Working with Lake Flato, a local architecture firm, Barnhart plans to install long, leather-clad L-shaped banquettes, vintage Tobias Scarpa lamps and drawings by the New York artist Karin Haas, whose work abstracts patterns she finds in nature.

The room’s look will probably feel familiar: comforting, even. But having become known for an identifiable style over the past few years, Morris and Polonsky are now at pains to escape its tyranny. Back at De Maria, Polonsky points out a geometrically patterned wall inspired by kintsugi (the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with thin threads of lacquer mixed with precious metals) that they created by filling cracks within the restaurant’s vintage subway tiles. Potential clients constantly request this motif, but Morris and Polonsky aren’t interested in replicating it. Likewise, they avoid Prouvé chairs and parti-colored Max Lamb marble. “It’s so easy for our clients to say, ‘We should do a pink place with midcentury chairs,’ ” Morris says. “But we don’t want them to fall into that trend. We don’t want them to say, ‘Let’s put avocado toast on the menu.’ ”

Instead, one of the MP Shift’s new European clients is adopting a primary-colored palette that seems inspired, in part, by another recent internet phenomenon: the resurgence of the designer Ettore Sottsass and his Memphis Group. At the forthcoming Parisian cafe Echo, the menus and logo will feature Crayola red, blue and yellow that suggest mid-80s Los Angeles. Morris and Polonsky predict Europe’s next trend-driven restaurant interiors might include angular Serge Mouille sconces and chrome seating, Formica counters and linoleum floors; in this context, these mundane American surfaces would likely feel modern. Though soon enough they, too, will be retired, making way for a new aesthetic to serve a new generation of diners who need to rest their phone on a lambent tabletop, order a hemp-milk cortado and, perhaps, post a photo or two.

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A Low-Key Swedish Island’s Shockingly Modern Architecture


The minimalist plaster box that serves as architect Bolle Tham’s vacation home rises from a ridge above one of Gotland’s stony beaches.CreditMikael Olsson

THE DANISH-NORWEGIAN WRITER Aksel Sandemose was a minor literary figure, a notorious crank, when he wrote the 1933 novel containing a set of commandments that would become one of Scandinavia’s defining social texts. “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” is a barely veiled send-up of his hometown, Nykobing Mors (renamed Jante) and an uncomfortably close-to-the-bone satire of Nordic conformity. Jante is governed by the “Law of Jante,” rules for living that reflect both Scandinavia’s ethnic homogeneity and its long-held belief that people are happier when both pleasure and pain are spread among all citizens:

You shall not believe that you are someone.
You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
You shall not laugh at us.
You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.

These days, Scandinavians bristle at the mention of the Law of Jante. Such stereotypes, they insist, no longer have such a stronghold in a modern world, one where Stockholm now leads in billion-dollar technology companies per capita, second only to Silicon Valley.

Yet it is hard not to think of Sandemose as you drive along the winter-deserted roads of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, a 40-minute flight south from Stockholm. About the size of Long Island and flat as a soccer field, it is the country’s sunniest locale. (Admittedly, that doesn’t say much in a place that spends most of the year in frigid darkness.) And along with Faro, its companion island off its northern tip, it is forever associated with the director Ingmar Bergman, who set many of his greatest films here and lived in Faro for the last decades of his life. In July and early August, Gotland is a tourist mecca; young professionals, starved for heat and light, party in the beer gardens of Visby, a port town of 24,300. An hour or two away, up and down the coasts, are the summer houses of the country’s politicians and business executives, fronting beaches dotted with rauks — gigantic, craggy sculptural formations unique to the area, as ghostly as something from Stonehenge, created by ice-age reef erosions. Scarlet poppies and brilliant blue viper’s bugloss carpet the meadows and line the roadside ditches.

The director Ingmar Bergman’s study, preserved as part of a retreat for artists and writers on the island of Faro, north of Gotland.CreditMikael Olsson

But by late August, tourist season is over. There is no gradual wind-down here, just a sudden deflation, like the circus pulling up stakes in a rush. Unlike the Stockholm Archipelago, a set of islands near the capital that Swedes visit year-round, Gotland seems to disappear like Brigadoon. A number of restaurants and inns outside of Visby, including the minimalist 19-suite Fabriken Furillen, owned by the former photographer Johan Hellstrom, shut down, and the flora dies as well, laying bare the local architecture. So stripped-down and uniform are the farmhouses of Gotland’s interior, no matter what century they were built in they seem to have been drawn by a 5-year-old: rectangles topped with triangular roofs, each with a plain door and a few tiny frameless windows. The summer cottages along the largely unmarked roads are also free of embellishment: low-slung bungalows painted a familiar Falu red, the auburn-hued weather-resistant oil pigment derived from the copper mines of Dalarna, in central Sweden, during the 16th century. “People have always come to Gotland to get back to tradition and nature,” says Joel Phersson, a 35-year-old architect who works and lives on the island. “If you were to tell your friends in Stockholm that you’re going to your family’s vacation house here, you’d perhaps be telegraphing that you are well off but very low-key. Ostentation is a high crime.”

But recently, a generation of homeowners and architects, including Phersson’s firm Skalso, have started not just ignoring, but defying the Law of Jante. Working around restrictive zoning laws that prioritize “protection and preservation” of the island, which was settled more than 9,000 years ago as an agricultural hub, they have spent the last decade building contemporary houses as distinctive as the topography. From cast-concrete bunkers to glass-framed aeries, the new houses shock, subverting long-established order with a cool blast of modernity, while also paying homage to the island’s chilly dignity.

At left, the residence by married architects Hans Murman and Ulla Alberts is wrapped in a scrim printed with life-size photographs of the surrounding juniper trees. At right, a 43-foot missile silo contains a three-floor-deep marble-lined hammam inside a former Cold War bunker transformed into a home by the firm Skalso.CreditMikael Olsson

HANS MURMAN AND his wife, Ulla Alberts, architects who own a firm in Stockholm that often designs health spas, were in a perfect position to experiment on Gotland. The secluded parcel on which they built their Juniper House is owned by Alberts’s family; she spent barefoot summers in her parents’ still-standing red cottage. Before conceptualizing their own house, the couple designed a number of structures for relatives on the 2.2-acre plot, inadvertently creating a sort of stages-of-man evolutionary chart of their aesthetic. In addition to a studio that they made as newlyweds — little more than a shack — the property includes her brother’s unadorned two-story limestone farmhouse built in 2002 from plans that the 54-year-old Alberts drafted in architecture school, as well as a 1,700-square-foot, midcentury-inflected villa with a peaked wooden roof and bright orange accents that the couple finished in 2014 for Ulla’s sister. Over a decade ago, they completed the home that would become their ultimate statement, a dwelling in dialogue with the thicket of 15-foot juniper trees in which it hides. To create its innovative cladding, the 71-year-old Murman photographed the conifers, then had the images transposed in 1:1 scale onto a vinyl scrim. The mural wraps around the building’s wooden exterior on a galvanized steel frame about two feet from the walls. The house, a mere 540 square feet puzzled out with the ingenuity of a yacht to accommodate their two sons, recedes into the forest during the day — somewhat of a poke to local officials who fretted that a modern structure would mar the landscape — yet glows at night like a botanical Noguchi lantern. “We are in our own world here,” Murman says. “Among these houses there is every era, every generation. Just walking around you can travel through time.”

A 45-minute drive away, past a weathered windmill and fields of sheep fat with winter wool, Asa Myrdal Bratt has come from the mainland to meet me at her house. Built right on a rarely traveled road, it seems to rise from an empty field like a giant charred barn after a merciless prairie fire. That is precisely the effect that Stockholm-based architect Jens Enflo was seeking when his firm built it in collaboration with Deve Architects several years ago: “I wanted it to seem as though the land was just growing all the way through it,” the 42-year-old Enflo says. Clad in nearly black stained pine, a hue virtually unseen on Gotland and one that suggests shou sugi ban, the ancient Japanese burnt-timber treatment, the structure plays with proportion and transparency in a painterly way, contrasting against the flat, tree-void site. Almost 80 feet long but just under 15 feet wide, with a peaked 22-foot ceiling and a single lofted bedroom, the house’s front and back walls are partially glass, as are most of its interior walls; the central area between the living room and the small guest wing holds a covered courtyard, completing the illusion of a raw, skeletal frame. Myrdal Bratt — a brand consultant in her 50s, who, with her husband, a doctor, bought the house in 2014 — says that the place is warm, even cozy, despite its openness; from the outside, it appears provocatively barren, a stripped-down interpretation of the working livestock barns that you can see in the distance.

Gotland’s typically flat meadowland seems to flow through the barnlike house created by Jens Enflo’s firm and Deve Architects.CreditMikael Olsson

NOT ALL OF the several dozen modern houses on Gotland are entirely at peace with the island’s natural and agricultural history; some, in fact, actively challenge the surrounding landscape. Consider the harshly reductive house that the 48-year-old architect Bolle Tham’s firm built for his family: From the outside it resembles army barracks, with an exterior of local plaster, colored with carbon and troweled smooth atop a masonry core. Inside, all of the rooms face a central courtyard, giving it a snug, insular feel, though there are several wall-size windows that swing out like barn doors on summer days. Although it’s one level, some of the rooms demand several steps — a necessary design quirk after Tham resisted blasting the underlying rock to lay a uniform slab; he felt the house should follow the landscape’s topography. The living areas are nearly naked, the bedrooms cell-like, the finishes plywood. “Gotland’s vacation homes had become cliché, so we thought it was time to do something that wasn’t a replica of an old limestone farmhouse,” he says. “We wanted to be in conversation with the past, but not just repeat it.”

Still, Tham’s shed-like edifice seems recessive, even humble, compared with a collection of homes being built on the island’s Bungenas peninsula, a few miles from the seven-minute ferry to Faro. In 2007, the 49-year-old real-estate developer Joachim Kuylenstierna bought a gated 400 acres that had originally been a quarry and then, during the Cold War, the site for 100 bunkers.

There are now more than 30 homes on Bungenas, in addition to a coffee house, a six-room hotel and a concert venue converted from an old barn. All the businesses and a majority of the homes have been designed by Skalso, the firm Kuylenstierna founded with Phersson and his fellow architect, the 38-year-old Erik Gardell, because there wasn’t anyone on the island who could shape the sort of avant-garde vacation community they desired. The commune alludes to the Sea Ranch, the meticulously planned 1960s utopia in Northern California — albeit modified to include Gotland’s bunkers, some of which Skalso modernized by scooping out enough earth on one side to allow for an entry, making them a kind of Swedish hobbit dwelling. Most of these subterranean residences, which owners tend to furnish with a sparseness that borders on clinical, are less than 600 square feet, a size that the economical Swedes deem sufficient for a family of four.

To follow the natural curve of the land and avoid blasting into dense rock, Tham, the architect, designed the concrete floors of his near-bare dwelling to rise and fall from room to room.CreditMikael Olsson

But one owner, a Swedish industrialist who bought one of the largest bunkers in the development six years ago, asked Skalso to take the firm’s concept to astonishing depths, both aesthetically and literally. On approach, his house appears to be a one-story ultra-Brutalist box, made from concrete — a material rarely used for houses on Gotland — that had been poured into wooden molds to lend it a grain. Yet the 1,300-square-foot building that’s visible above ground, which includes hushed, honed public spaces in dark wood, a welded metal kitchen and two minimalist bedrooms, represents less than a fifth of the total living space: The rest is beneath grade, on three floors, descending nearly 50 feet.

The excavation and underground construction process felt like laboring in the mines. Skalso preserved and exposed as much of the original concrete structure as possible, connecting a series of high-ceilinged, lavishly spare, skillfully lit rooms with a spiral, matte-black steel staircase. In addition to a vast dining room, there is a large, round marble-lined hammam installed in a former missile silo; the sky is visible through a glass porthole three flights above. Next to it is a “spa” with custom rubber sofas. Despite how sleek and chillingly soundproof the place is — you half-expect to hear muffled screams from somewhere in the depths — the owners, who, incongruously, have two young children, are clearly aware of their house’s inherent drama: In a niche along one of the subterranean corridors, Skalso added a metal shelving unit stacked with cans of baked beans and bottled water, a wink to contemporary survivalist clichés.

It is an extreme way to live, but in the end Gotland, despite its reputation for placid beauty, is pretty extreme itself: remote and wind-whipped and fierce — with, finally, a corresponding architecture. There are more contemporary houses in the works on the island over the next decade, including a streamlined enclave of a dozen on the island’s northeast inlet anchored by the Fabriken Furillen inn. The Law of Jante, it turns out, especially its final tenet — “You shall not believe you can teach us anything” — is no longer true here, amid the quiet farmhouses, the monochrome of Falu red, the biblical sky that never ends. Subversion, it seems, takes its most intriguing form when there is something beautiful and pure to bend. “You need the right background to change the way people think,” Enflo had said, staring out at the field from the wide-open house he designed. “It’s that contrast that makes you free.”


Where the Swedes Go to Be (Really) Alone

Cold Comfort at the Edge of the World

Not All Scandinavian Design is Minimalist

Bornholm: Crafts and Sunshine on the Danish Isle

Nancy Hass is the writer at large for T Magazine.


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How Low Will Market for Antiques Actually Go?

Even New York’s prestigious Winter Antiques Show has changed its rules. Founded in 1955, the show once required that exhibited pieces be at least 100 years old. In 2009, the organizers and dealer committee changed the cutoff date to 1969 to include midcentury objects. In 2016, they removed the date restriction entirely, paving the way for contemporary design.


“Sun and Moon,” a bronze and horse hair sculpture by the artist Erin Sullivan hangs above John Procario’s “Freeform Luminaire II” and next to Amy Cushing’s “Incandescent” at the Todd Merrill Studio. Credit Stefania Curto for The New York Times

“By expanding the datelines we were registering changes in the antiques world,” said Michael Diaz-Griffith, the fair’s associate executive director. “We’re just allowing it to happen instead of being so rule-bound that we create an artificial zone where those market shifts, and shifts in taste, can’t be seen.”

One exhibitor to take advantage of that change is Jason Jacques Gallery, which was once known primarily as a dealer of late 19th and early 20th century European ceramics but is increasingly focused on contemporary design.

At the 2018 Winter Antiques Show in January, its presentation included a pair of black plywood benches sprouting moose antlers by the fashion designer Rick Owens (about $5,500) and a new seven-foot-tall Rococo-inspired porcelain wall piece resembling a medallion by Katsuyo Aoki and Shinichiro Kitaura ($250,000).

The medallion “was probably one of the most Instagrammed pieces in the entire fair,” said the gallery’s director Jason T. Busch, noting that he expects contemporary design to become an even larger part of his business in the coming years. “We’re going to always have work from our historic program, but I think it will be integrated within the contemporary.”

The online antiques marketplace 1stdibs (to whose magazine this reporter occasionally contributes) has also been looking to capitalize on the trend. It began a contemporary category in November 2016. One year later, contemporary design represented 15 percent of the company’s furniture sales, and the offering had expanded to include about 30,000 products by more than 500 artisans and small manufacturers.

“It’s our fastest growing category,” said Cristina Miller, the company’s chief commercial officer.


The Jason Jacques Gallery booth at the 2018 Winter Antiques Show in Manhattan. Credit Jason Jacques Gallery

Indeed, a recent survey 1stdibs commissioned found that professional interior designers used about 65 percent contemporary products in their projects last year, and only 35 percent vintage.

The Declining Value of Antiques

Compared with the heyday of antiques collecting, prices for average pieces are now “80 percent off,” said Colin Stair, the owner of Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, N.Y. “Your typical Georgian 18th century furniture, chests of drawers, tripod tables, Pembroke tables,” he noted, can all be had for a fraction of what they cost 15 to 20 years ago.

In 2002, Mr. Stair sold a set of eight George III-style carved mahogany chairs for $8,000; in 2016, he sold a similar set of eight chairs for $350.

In 2003, he dispatched a Regency breakfront bookcase for $9,500; in 2016, the sales price of an equivalent piece had plummeted to $1,300.

There are exceptions. Some designers and homeowners still mix antiques with contemporary furniture to create eclectic interiors, and particularly stylish pieces can bring high prices. Dealers of Asian antiques, like Betsy Nathan, the owner of Chicago-based Pagoda Red, report strong sales to overseas buyers (“We’re shipping back to Asia now,” she said. “In a million years, I never would have imagined it.”) Some passionate collectors also are willing to pay for pure historical value.

Mr. Stair’s highlights from the past year include a George I cut-gesso and giltwood table that sold for $31,000 and a Louis XVI mahogany desk that sold for $13,000.


George III style carved mahogany side chairs. Left, sold for $8,000 in 2002. Right, sold for $350 in 2016. Credit Stair Galleries

But antiques that move for more than $10,000 in his auction house are rare, he noted, and the market for midcentury modern furniture without a recognizable name attached – popular just a few years ago – is also flagging.

“It’s just as fickle,” he said. “Unless it’s special, has a name brand or is sexy, it’ll die just as hard as a piece of brown Georgian furniture.”

Changing Tastes

Dealers, auctioneers and designers point to a number of reasons for the declining interest in antiques and rapid rise of contemporary design. More homes have open-concept, casual living spaces rather than formal dining rooms and studies, which reduces the need for stately mahogany dining tables, chairs and cabinets.

“In these big rooms, a contemporary piece becomes a piece of sculpture,” said Christine Van Deusen, a New York designer who recently commissioned numerous custom creations from Maison Gerard, Cristina Grajales Gallery and Iliad for a client’s duplex penthouse on the Upper East Side. “Vintage and antiques are finite, but creativity is infinite, so I can do things that I could not do if I were only looking for things that were in existence.”

Midpriced retailers like Restoration Hardware, West Elm and CB2 make it easy to buy tasteful furniture on the cheap, with little hunting required.

And a new generation of homeowners may be rebelling against the preferences of their elders.

“The 40-something crowd isn’t looking to put a highboy in their house,” said Ethan Merrill, the third-generation president of Merrill’s auctioneers and appraisers near Burlington, Vt. (and Todd Merrill’s brother). “They relate more to pop culture, fashion-oriented materials and rock ‘n’ roll.”


Regency mahogany breakfront bookcases. Left, sold for $9,500 in 2003. Right, sold for $1,300 in 2016. Credit Stair Galleries

For many people today, “an English antique represents something that is kind of sad and tired,” said Thad Hayes, a New York interior designer who has recently been emptying antiques-filled homes and designing new rooms with contemporary pieces for wealthy clients both young and old.

Contemporary design, he said, “represents something that’s a lot more optimistic and positive.”

A Search for the Exceptional

Big auction houses like Christie’s have adapted to the new market by being choosier about the pieces they accept for sale, and selling less.

“There’s no denying that there’s been, in the last 10 to 15 years, something of a sea change in taste and collecting habits,” said William Strafford, a senior international specialist in European furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s in New York. “We are wanting to move away from too much volume and to give the pieces we do offer a very strong, stylistic identity, or the breathing space to be seen as collectors’ items.”

Although the overall market for antiques is shrinking, said Mr. Strafford, activity at the very top remains strong, as ultrawealthy buyers acquire the finest museum-grade pieces, regardless of category, period or origin.

“With the explosion of international wealth, and the reach of the internet, we’re able to reach buyers with extraordinary spending capacity,” said Mr. Strafford. “We can often sell quite traditional decorative arts to these new emerging markets such as the Middle East and the Far East, most particularly China.”


George III mahogany and parcel-gilt mirrors. The one on the left sold for $3,300 in 2002, and the one on the right for $1,800 in 2014. Credit Stair Galleries

To create a rarefied context for high-ticket objects, Christie’s has developed a new type of sale, which it calls the Exceptional Sale. “It’s a very small, really curated sale that tends to be about 30 or 40 lots, and it’s the best of the best of the decorative arts,” said Mr. Strafford.

Last April, one of Christie’s Exceptional Sales set the auction record for English walnut furniture when it sold an immaculate circa 1730 George II bureau cabinet for $967,500 (including the buyer’s premium) that previously belonged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such blockbuster sales seem to do little to prop up antiques that don’t come from the Met or weren’t owned by celebrity collectors.

The End or a Trend?

Will other 18th and 19th century furniture pieces ever return to fashion? Many designers say that antiques will rise again but, after nearly two decades of decline, few are willing to predict when.

“The pendulum is going to swing just like it does in politics,” said Mr. Hayes. “It always does. But I don’t see it coming anytime soon.”

Jamie Drake, the New York interior designer, also views the current dismissal of antiques as a trend, “just as color trends have moved from neutrals to vibrants, back to neutrals, back to vibrants,” he said.

In his own home, most of the furniture and art is contemporary and modern, “but I do still have some antiques,” he said.

A home without them, he added, “would be like a sentence without punctuation.”

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