In the Trade
No matter how you may feel about mid-century modern, you’ve got to be curious about anyone who buys Eames chairs by the gross.
That’s what Frank Daley and Judith Engel do. It may not be the major part of their business—and they certainly don’t consider it the most exciting part of their business—but it’s the sort of solid foundation that any dealer would appreciate: a tried and true part of your inventory that helps support you in good times and bad.
Last February, Engel and Daley moved their retail operation, Modern on the Hudson, into a substantial chunk of space in the cavernous shop of Arenskjold Antiques Art on Warren Street, Hudson, New York’s main drag. (Kim and Jennifer Arenskjold still occupy the front half of the huge space. In addition to what they lease to Daley and Engel, they also rent space to longtime Hudson dealer Benjamin Wilson. “This is a great space and a great group of people. We’re like a little family here,” Engel said.)
Frank Daley and Judith Engel. The two-part sunburst architectural panel behind them is a composite made to look like bronze. It was produced by a firm called Forms + Surfaces. It’s $5500.
Signed Bruno Mathsson dining table with its original “primavera oak” finish. Daley said, “There are a lot of copies of this table, but this was made in Sweden in the 1940s.” It’s $4300. The Eames DCMs (see text) made in the late 1980s or early ’90s are $575 each, substantially less than they would cost if they were “first period.”
A rare Finn Juhl NV 45 chair made by cabinetmaker Niels Vodder, with its original upholstery. It’s priced at $16,500. “It’s all handmade. We always try to carry a few signature things,” Daley said. In this field, he added, original upholstery is not particularly valued, but it plays a part in the integrity of this piece because it would require some taking apart in order to reupholster the chair. “That would bother some purists,” he said. Daley noted that he bought the chair from the son of the original owner, who had bought it in a Danish furniture store.
Daley and Engel specialize in modern-era furniture, along with a smattering of lamps, artwork, and accessories. Their inventory runs the gamut from rarities with five-figure prices to more prosaic pieces that have “the look” but not the intimidating price tags.
Their shop space, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg. The pair (Engel said, “We’re BFFs.”) have warehouses in Rensselaer near Troy and elsewhere in Hudson. Should you happen to need, say, ten dozen Eames chairs or a bunch of Eero Saarinen office chairs, Daley and Engel can fix you up.
Such pieces are icons of modern design, but they have been produced in the millions during the last 70 years, so while you might want them to furnish your chic loft, dealers don’t get very excited by them.
“It’s like selling widgets,” Engel said. “We’ll always buy them at the right price. It’s very formulaic. At any given time we’ll have two hundred and fifty DCMs [that stands for “Dining Chair Metal,” the famous “potato chip” chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames with metal, rather than wood, legs] and fifty or sixty Saarinen chairs. It’s like money in the bank. If somebody’s doing a restaurant, we can do it.”
Daley and Engel are plugged into what you might call the office furniture recycling world. When a large corporate office is changing décor, they hear about it. Corporate headquarters that were designed and furnished in the 1950s or 1960s have yielded vast amounts of this furniture over the years. Daley said, for example, “At Connecticut General Insurance they had hundreds and hundreds of Saarinen chairs.”
A Hans Wegner four-seat sofa in its original burnt-orange upholstery, $4200.
“Most people refer to these as Laverne chairs,” Daley said, because they were manufactured by Laverne Originals in New York, but he added that they were actually the product of three designers: William Katavolos, Douglas Kelley, and Ross Littell. They’re also known in the trade as New York chairs. The pair is $5500. The leather upholstery has been done over.
Brass lamp. Daley said lamps like this are often attributed to Finnish designer Paavo Tynell and that “they bring, like, eight thousand dollars.” But he’s dubious about a Tynell attribution for this example, so he has priced it at $1800. “It is either from Finland or Denmark,” he said.
Daley said his Hudson sales are split fairly evenly between decorators and retail customers. “There are not a whole lot of dealers buying here these days,” he said, adding that designers still find it worthwhile to come up from the city for a day of looking. Because of rising rents, he explained, “a lot of shops in New York City are now so small that decorators can’t look at much. It’s worth the trip. They can come up and see stuff. And they’re even bringing clients.”
Engel and Daley estimate that sales in Hudson now account for about 40% of their business. Another 40% comes from online sales, especially on 1stdibs, although they have recently tried DECASO, a new Modernist selling site, as well. “We did everything we could do online,” Engel said. Daley added, “We were doing eBay from the beginning.”
They’ve been on 1stdibs since 2014. “We were a little late to the picnic,” Engel said, which may explain why she’s less bothered by recent changes and constraints inaugurated on the site compared to some dealers who’ve been on the platform longer. “You sign a contract; you know what the deal is,” she said.
The biggest problem with 1stdibs, Daley noted, is also one of its greatest strengths: it has worldwide reach. A dealer’s inventory is now available to the whole world, but the cost of international shipping, he said, can kill what look like solid deals. “A lot of times the piece is three thousand dollars and shipping is seven thousand.”
Engel said that’s a problem they have yet to solve: “We have so many overseas inquiries, but we’re not in the know when it comes to international shipping.” She found that the shipping for six Knoll chairs to Geneva, Switzerland, was $8000. “They broke down into three boxes, two to a box,” she said. She went to UPS to see if it was any cheaper and found that UPS would ship the boxes for $6500, but that apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy the client, from whom they haven’t heard since.
Engel and Daley have just begun working with the DECASO site and say it is too early to judge results. “But they were really sensitive to dealers’ needs,” Engel said. Daley figures that the many antiques and vintage online selling sites will sort themselves out over time: “I think it’s fair to say that these new ones are just finding their way.”
We noted above that about 40% of Modern on the Hudson’s business derives from the shop and 40% from Internet sales. The remaining 20% comes from what Daley has always done: picked for New York City dealers. Now that they have the shop, he doesn’t do as much picking as he used to. “I’m not doing a lot of wholesaling out of the truck anymore,” he said, but he still buys for a couple of New York dealers. Engel notes, for example, that Daley still maintains his long-term relationship with John Birch, whose shop, Wyeth (named after his son, not the family of painters), sprawls over 10,000 square feet on Canal Street and attracts lots of celebrities.
The term “modern,” of course, actually covers a variety of styles produced throughout much of the 20th century. It is not monolithic. Engel said that buyers’ tastes have changed over the years: “When we started there was a lot less of a mix.” Buyers were looking for the well-known austere designs by people like Charles and Ray Eames, Edward Wormley, and Florence Knoll that were produced by firms like Herman Miller in the decades after World War II. But today, the market is more interested in the warmer Scandinavian designs made in teak, rosewood, and walnut. Engel said, “It’s shifted to Danish designers but also to decorative pieces that have a look.” She added, “Danish didn’t change much from the fifties to the eighties.”
Pieces dating from the 1950s, and especially the 1960s, are the heart of the business now. “The sixties are hanging tough,” Engel said. She noted that 1970s designs, characterized by chrome, Lucite, and other plastics, had a brief vogue. “We did try a fair amount of Lucite,” Daley pointed out, and Engel added, “For a hot minute four or five years ago there was a wave that came for the seventies but it went away. Now it’s going back to the sixties.”
She speculated, however, that, as time goes by, individual decades will make less of a difference. “As we get further away it all gets mushed together.” Daley added, “It all comes down to stuff that looks good in a house.”
Pieces from the late 1970s and beyond by design stars such as Ettore Sottsass, Zaha Hadid, Peter Shire, and Ron Arad, produced by firms such as Memphis and Vitra, are commanding high prices but haven’t made much of an impact on Daley and Engel’s business. “Memphis stuff is pretty hot,” Frank said, “but for us, not yet.”
A partial view of Modern on the Hudson.
Pierre Jeanneret teak and cane armchair designed for civic buildings in Chandigarh, India, the Modernist city designed by Jeanneret’s cousin Le Corbusier. It’s $6000. The Chandigarh furniture was handmade. Daley said, “We have two of these, and they’re a little different from each other.”
Magazine table designed by Edward Wormley for Dunbar, $3400. “I’m a sucker for Wormley’s Dunbar stuff,” Daley said.
While most buyers simply want things—no matter what the price range—that “look good in a house,” there are still serious collectors who will pay big money for prototypes by famous designers. And entry-level buyers are also interested in the minor differences in labels or the number of screws attaching the legs that may distinguish an Eames chair made in 1948 from one made in 1956. “Young people just starting out want to know the minutiae,” Daley said but added that “the information weenies have drifted toward higher-end Danish.”
Daley noted that the widespread reproduction of modern “classics” by designers such as Eames, Saarinen, and George Nelson has had a substantial impact on the prices of period versions of their work, which are often lower than they used to be. He said, “Who wants to pay ten thousand for a George Nelson jewelry chest when you can buy one from China for three hundred?” (Nelson jewelry boxes are carefully crafted wooden boxes fitted with small drawers that appear to be precariously balanced on skinny pedestals.)
Engel and Daley met in New York City even though they both come from the upstate Capital Region. Engel grew up in Rotterdam outside Schenectady; Daley grew up not far away in Wynantskill near Troy. Daley had gone to the big city to play music. He’s a guitarist who comes from a musical family. He spent ten years on the road touring with Bo Diddley, and his brothers also perform. “His brother was playing with Paul McCartney in London a week ago,” Engel said.
When they got together, Engel was working as a bartender at the Plaza Hotel. “I worked there when Donald Trump owned it,” she said. “I was the first woman bartender there.”
The pair had known each other vaguely when they lived upstate. “I worked at a bar in Schenectady,” Engel said, “and we sort of knew each other from the bars.”
In 1996 they decided to open their first antiques shop. They found a shop in Saratoga Springs on Broadway, the main street, just north of Congress Park in the heart of the city. Engel said, “We thought Saratoga was the only place in the Capital District that might have a clientele. We were wrong. Nobody in Saratoga was looking at mid-century modern. All people wanted was horses.” “It’s a hat shop now,” Daley added.
Saratoga was clearly not ready for their mix, which then included not only mid-century modern but also Art Deco, wicker, and even the occasional motorcycle, moped, or vintage guitar that Daley would bring in. “We tried to put interesting things in,” he said.
To anyone who knows the Capital District, their experience would not come as a surprise. The area has always been a hard sell for even conservative traditional antiques. (Having exhibited at the August Saratoga show at Canfield Casino in the park, your author can testify that jewelry and horse stuff were what buyers seemed to be looking for. Dealers with actual antiques were widely ignored.)
And the area has never been a hot spot of modern design. “I didn’t see modern anywhere growing up in upstate. It was all Ethan Allen. The place I grew up in was called Colonial Manor,” Engel said. The area finally has one outlet for middling new modern design in the recently opened West Elm chain store in the upscale Stuyvesant Plaza. It remains to be seen if it will prosper. Another modern design store had a short life and closed several years ago.
(To be fair, it should be pointed out that, architecturally speaking, the Albany area is not a Modernist desert. There are some good modern buildings in the Capital Region, Edward Durell Stone’s SUNY Albany campus and his Unitarian church in Schenectady among them, along with the more recent EMPAC arts center on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. And, of course, there’s the mammoth South Mall in Albany. It’s arguable whether or not its Flash Gordon design qualifies as “good,” but it does house an impressive collection of modern paintings and sculpture from the 1960s and ’70s.)
The famous 26th Street flea market on Sixth Avenue in New York City came to Daley and Engel’s rescue. They got out of their Saratoga lease thanks to a lenient landlord. “We were counting the days,” Engel said.
Three sculptures by Judith Engel. She sells through a gallery in Tribeca and said, “I have a studio right around the corner” in Hudson. The pieces look like patinated metal, but they are actually clay with a metallic-type glaze. She said her pieces sell for between $450 and $1250.
Rosewood executive desk from Denmark designed by Illum Wikkelsø, $5800.
Another view of Engel and Daley’s shop.
“Twenty-Sixth Street was great. It was exciting,” Daley said. “Dealers from Long Island would buy out a house during the week, bring in the stuff, and not know what they had. It was a school for us.”
Engel recalls the challenge of exhibiting there: “It was not for the faint of heart. Dealers were very aggressive. You had to move your van fast or you lost out.”
It was also at the flea market that they developed the contacts that allowed them to do serious wholesaling to New York City dealers. And that was when they began to focus exclusively on mid-century modern. Daley said, “Modern really started for us when we started wholesaling to New York City stores.”
Daley and Engel also took space in the nearby “garage” market when the flea market moved inside. And they did two short stints at the Showplace group venue on West 25th Street, but nothing had the same excitement about it as the outdoor 26th Street market.
Engel recalled sitting with Cara Greenberg, who wrote the pioneering 1984 book Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. “We’d sit in the Showplace talking. We were the only modern dealers there. She sold mid-century lamps. Nobody came there looking for modern.”
After the demise of the 26th Street market, they tried lots of other spaces, but most were short-lived. Engel said, “We did Brooklyn Flea a couple of times, but nobody’s lugging vans of furniture there.” They also took space in the early Hudson antiques center run by Alain Pioton and had two shops in Troy, which they used basically as warehouse space.
As Daley cut back on wholesaling out of the truck, the pair knew that they wanted to settle into a retail space. “When our daughter went to college, we knew we’d come to Hudson or New York,” Engel said. Their daughter, Ruby, is now at Providence College, and given the parlous state of the antiques trade in Manhattan, Hudson seems like the more reasonable bet.
For more information, contact Frank Daley and Judith Engel, Modern on the Hudson, 605 Warren St., Hudson, NY 12534. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. Phone (518) 339-2621 or (212) 920-1933; website (www.modernonthehudson.com).
Originally published in the February 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest