Architecture and Design

Mid-century modern design a Hong Kong auction hit - is it the next must-have collectible?

Chairs, tables and ceramics by mid-century master craftsmen, designers are in demand at Hong Kong sales. helped by a variety of entry points

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2017, 7:43pm

Could design be the next new hot collectible? As prices in the contemporary art market continue to soar, it appears that some collectors have already started to snap up chairs, tables and ceramics by mid-century master craftsmen and designers.

The trend is being led in part by the auction houses where art and design are being presented side by side. It seems to be achieving some success. In late 2016 in Hong Kong, auction house Phillips introduced a rare example Chieftain armchair designed by Danish architect Finn Juhl in 1949 and handcrafted in Brazilian Rosewood by the master cabinetmaker Niels Vodder. The work achieved a price of about HK$1.94 million, while a curvaceous “Ghost Rider” rocking chair in Bubinga wood by American designer Wendell Castle sold for HK$1.25 million.

“The prices did not come as a surprise because of the quality of craftsmanship that was on offer and a growing interest in this field,” says Phillips deputy chairman, Asia, Jonathan Crockett.

Crockett says interest has been mounting from the Asia region, with collectors already actively participating in their auction sales in New York and London.

In Hong Kong, growing interest in design works has also been fostered by cultural organisations such as Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture and a series of design-related exhibitions and business events. In November 2016, M+’s inaugural design display introduced 120 works including important designs by Yanagi Sori, Charlotte Perriand and Ettore Sottsass.

“The exhibition was a great inspiration for collectors to see furniture as collectables alongside artworks from a similar period,” says the Hong Kong architect, art and design collector William Lim.

A growing frustration with the notoriously speculative contemporary art market has also helped shift attention by both young and more established collectors towards design pieces whose prices are still comparatively reasonable, says Alan Lo, the co-founder of the non-profit cultural organisation Ambassadors of Design.

While many of the buyers at the Phillips art and design auction remained anonymous, pre-auction the head of sales and associate director Sandy Ma said they expected about half the buyers bidding for the pieces to be adding to already growing personal collections.

As with art, provenance proved to be a critical factor with, for example, the Austrian-born British potter Lucie Rie’s Monumental “knitted” bowl selling for HK$500,000. It had been exhibited in Dusseldorf at the Hetjens Museum in 1979, and came from a private German collection.

A pair of armchairs by the architect Gio Ponti, which were originally designed in the 1950s for the ballroom of the Giulio Cesare transatlantic ocean liner also sold above its high estimate, although works by the French interior designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and select pieces by the French architect and designer Jean Prouvé did not sell, possibly because they were slightly overpriced.

According to Ma, a variety of price entry points helped to attract younger collectors to items like a mirror designed for Yves Saint-Laurent by the French jeweller Robert Goossens that sold for HK$175,000.

“We know there are collectors who are interested in design but haven’t had the opportunity or chance to buy yet. We believe there is already a tradition or mindset in place for younger generations of Chinese collectors to live with great design pieces that reflect their personal style because that is what their parents did when they collected original furniture like Ming chairs,” Ma says.

The auction also focused on significant original works by known artists, an approach that looks set to continue with the next auction, scheduled for May 28, where collectors are already jostling for Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata’s “Miss Blanche” chair designed in 1988 and from an edition of just 56.

Meanwhile, at Phillips’ 2016 auction, Roy Lichtenstein’s L andscape with Grass exceeded the high estimate and sold for HK$35.48 million, while Daydreamer by Yoshitomo Nara realised HK$12.08 million, establishing a new world auction record for a work on paper by the artist. The sale also saw 100 per cent sell-through rates for works by Japanese artists, with Yayoi Kusama also igniting strong international bidding.

Furniture and decorative arts have a long way to go before they are likely to reach such heady prices but it is clear that the art and furniture markets are likely to continue to complement each other, particularly with private buyers who will be looking for sleek modernist furniture to match their new contemporary art collections.

The downside is that as interest grows, so do prices.

“It is our job as a museum to advocate a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, design and the other areas we collect,” muses M+ lead curator of design and architecture, Aric Chen.

“On the other hand, this can also help drive up prices to where we can’t afford such pieces ourselves. But that is when, hopefully, those same collectors might be prompted to donate. Our next job will be to turn collectors into philanthropists.”