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Twentieth-Century Design

Lita Solis-Cohen | June 11th, 2013

This is the Cappello del Doge vase by Thomas Stearns, 1961-62. It is hand-blown opaque and transparent glass, 5¾" high, produced at Venini in Murano, Italy. The underside is acid-etched with “venini/ murano/ ITALIA,” and it sold for $60,000 (est. $16,000/18,000). According to catalog notes, during his apprenticeship and subsequent employment at Venini, Thomas Stearns created a series of unconventional glass designs characterized by asymmetrical forms in subdued colors and other larger, sculptural works characterized by broad strokes of color. Venini presented six of the young American artist’s works at the XXXI Venice Biennale in 1962. The exhibition included Stearns’s Cappello del Doge vase, which was produced using the ancient incalmo technique.

Designed by Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) and produced by Chanaux & Pelletier, France, circa 1924, this 17" x 24¾" x 14¾" side table is walnut and parchment. It is impressed with “cp” and numbered “6425” and was sold together with a copy of the certificate of authenticity from the Comite Jean Michel-Frank for $173,000 (est. $80,000/120,000). It had sold for €67,000 ($86,371) in February 2009 at Christie’s in Paris at the sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.

This pair of armchairs, designed by Jean Royère (1902-1981), circa 1935, of oak and with persimmon-colored fabric, sold for $106,250 (est. $50,000/70,000). Each is 29 3/8" x 37" x 40½".

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984) designed this pair of doors for the Maisons Tropicales, circa 1949. Each 116" x 37 5/8" x 2" door is painted steel, aluminum, colored glass, clear glass, and wood, manufactured by Les Ateliers Jean Prouvé in France. According to the catalog essay, these doors remained in the factory when it closed in 1953 and were unused. They sold for $149,000 (est. $80,000/120,000).

Phillips, New York City

Photos courtesy Phillips

Catalogs printed for Phillips in New York City for its auctions of fine design compete with catalogs printed by Wright in Chicago. In the competition for the best-designed catalog, it’s a tossup; both are winners. Each photograph for the catalogs is a work of art. Too handsome to recycle, the catalogs remain in an oversize pile, hard to fit on the library shelf. These sales are carefully curated. It is not surprising that nearly all the successful bidding at Phillips is on the phones, but a few dozen observers came to watch the sale on June 11 at the elegant Park Avenue and 57th Street salesroom. Some new collectors emerged.

Alexander Payne, the worldwide director of design for Phillips, masterminds from London. Alex Heminway oversees the process in America, along with head of sales Meaghan Roddy and with Ben Williams in London overseeing the pottery and glass including for New York. Their design auctions balance works by well-established designers with some who are not as well known but who have pushed the boundaries of design in new directions. Some short essays in the catalogs, also found in the on-line catalogs, explain how the works were conceived and the process of creation. A visit to a Phillips presale exhibition is like a stop at the Museum of Modern Art’s design galleries.

This time you could have seen Thomas Heatherwick’s 2012 Extrusion Bench. It was made by forcing aluminum through a large die, then cutting it into unique unrepeatable sections, and hand polishing it. He intended to create lengthy seating for public spaces such as airports and stations. The process of creating his “Extrusion” series implies infinity. Heatherwick has stated that he could conceivably produce a work that reached around the planet. The bench that sold at Phillips for $80,000 (including buyer’s premium) was 52¾" long.

Terence Woodgate and John Barnard’s Surface Table is a 2008 collaboration between Woodgate and design engineer John Barnard, who designed the first carbon fiber FI race car for McLaren. The table design began as an experimental project to exploit the unique properties of carbon fiber. Terence Woodgate wrote for the Phillips catalog that they took the definition of table (a “horizontal supported surface”) and pushed it to the absolute: “a surface and not much more. The tapered legs blend smoothly into to the 2mm thick wafer-thin edge. Uniquely, the structural unidirectional carbon fibre is seen on the top surface.” The
28 3/8" x 157½" x 51 3/16" table, “formed and cured under elevated pressure and temperature in an autoclave,” sold for $77,500 (est. $30,000/40,000).

Thomas Stearns (1936-2006) went to Italy from Cranbrook Academy of Art at age 24 on a Fulbright scholarship to apprentice at Venini in Murano, Italy from the end of 1959 until near the end of 1962. Despite the language barrier (Stearns spoke no Italian), he impressed the glassblowers with his unconventional glass designs, asymmetrical forms in subdued colors, six of which were chosen by Venini for the Venice Biennale exhibition in 1962. One of them was Stearns’s Cappello del Doge vase, which suggests a minimalist doge’s hat in bands of opaque and transparent glass fused together in the ancient incalmo technique. It sold for $60,000 (est. $16,000/18,000).

Phillips offered some classic sculpture by François-Xavier Lalanne, and a young collector in the salesroom paid $413,000 (est. $400,000/600,000) for Singe Avisé (Grand), circa 2005, a 46½" x  32" x 30" patinated bronze gorilla with a self-satisfied expression. It was the top lot.

Phillips got $209,000 for Ron Arad’s Afterthoughtchair, made in 2007 of polished superplastic aerospace aluminum. It was produced in the Netherlands in an edition of six. But there was not a buyer for Marc Newson’s Orgonechair, circa 1993, of polished and painted aluminum with a hefty $280,000/380,000 estimate.

Phillips did well with a small walnut and parchment side table by Jean-Michel Frank, getting $173,000 for it. Christie’s had sold it for €67,000 ($86,371) in February 2009 at the sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in Paris.

Phillips had success finding buyers for lighting. A predictable $161,000 (est. $150,000/250,000) was paid for one of Poul Henningsen’s large double-spiral wall lights from the Scala Cinema and Concert Hall in Århus, Denmark. A table lamp designed by Alberto Giacometti for a Jean-Michel Frank commission and called the “Calabash” series, of alabaster with a fabric shade, sold for $100,000 (est. $80,000/120,000), and a Gio Ponti ceiling light of polished brass and opaque glass sold for $81,250 (est. $15,000/20,000).

The sale brought a total of $4,036,375 for 87 of the 112 lots offered; that is 78% sold by lot and 76% by presale estimated values. For more information, see the Web site ( or phone Meaghan Roddy at Phillips at (212) 940-1266.

Jean Royère’s Boomerang coffee table, circa 1957, is lacquered wood and oak and is 13 7/8" x 56¾" x 39½". It sold for $47,500 (est. $10,000/15,000). The boomerang shape was part of the design vocabulary in the 1950’s and appeared in many forms. It is used here by Royère as the shape for a table for the Halwani family, neighbors of Jean Royère and architect Nadim Majdalani in Beirut.

Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) designed this unique Giardino Settecentesco wardrobe for Villa Fornasetti, Varenna, Italy, circa 1954. The 78½" x 31 3/8" x 20 1/8" maple wardrobe with lithographic transfer-printed wood, painted wood, and brass sold for $179,000 (est. $50,000/70,000). Fornasetti designed this wardrobe for himself for the bedroom referred to as the “yellow bedroom” in his family’s holiday home on Lake Como, which was built by his father in 1900 and originally decorated in the neo-renaissance style. Fornasetti redesigned the villa in the early 1950’s and worked on it for the rest of his life, mixing his own designs with antiques.

This 45¾" x 10 1/8" x 10 1/8" Sonambient sculpture by Harry Bertoia (1915-1978), created in the 1960’s, is beryllium copper and bronze. It sold for $81,250 (est. $25,000/35,000). Not shown, an untitled (Willow) 61¼" sculpture by Bertoia sold for $56,250 (est. $30,000/$40,000).

The circa 1955 ceiling light by Gio Ponti (1891-1979) is of polished brass, painted brass, and opaque glass and has a 5 3/8" drop. It is 43½" in diameter. Together with a certificate of authenticity from the Gio Ponti Archives, the light sold for $81,250 (est. $15,000/20,000).

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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