Home furnishings: Thrill machines - MoneySense

Home furnishings: Thrill machines

The best of modern furniture is breathtakingly beautiful—and surprisingly affordable.


Back in the 1980s, when many of us were investing heavily in hair mousse, what we really should have been buying was furniture designed and made by a young Aussie surfer dude named Marc Newson. In 1985 he dreamed up a divan with sexpot curves and sheathed it in aluminum armor, sleek as a jet’s wing. He built 10 of these Lockheed Lounges, hoping to catch the eye of a manufacturer somewhere and land himself a deal to design furniture that would be produced in much larger quantities. Initially, the divan was a critical success but not a commercial one: Ian Schrager, the trend-setting hotelier, reportedly paid a mere $1,500 (U.S.) for a Lockheed in the early 1990s, when he was looking for something snazzy and strange for the lobby of his Paramount Hotel in New York. But then Newson’s career really took off, and so did his prices. Last year at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, a Lockheed Lounge zoomed into the headlines, fetching a stratospheric $968,000 (U.S.).

Newson’s skyrocketing prices prove that some contemporary furniture is now every bit as collectible as Chippendale side tables or Queen Anne armoires. For the most part, however, furniture by prominent 20th- and 21st-century designers remains a relatively accessible field. Whether you have a few hundred dollars to spend or tens of thousands, you can acquire an acknowledged classic or a piece by an internationally renowned midcareer designer. If you’re lucky, or you’re gifted with a fine eye for design, you may even find furniture that, like Newson’s Lockheed Lounge, will one day be worth many times what you paid for it.

For a lot of 21st-century people, a love affair with modern design begins with an interest in the enduringly popular work of the most prominent design innovators of the mid-20th century, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. Seemingly immune to passing fads, many of these designs have remained in steady production for 50 years or more. Yet many are surprisingly affordable.

Take, for example, Charles Eames’s sumptuous moulded plywood and leather lounge and matching ottoman—still starring in reruns of Frasier as the most conspicuous furniture in Dr. Frasier Crane’s living room that isn’t plastered with duct tape. The Eames lounge and ottoman marked their 50th anniversary in 2006, and they’re still made by the original manufacturer, Herman Miller. To acquire an original set in good condition you’ll probably have to go through a dealer or an auction house, and pay around $5,000. If you’re more interested in the look of the piece than its historic provenance, you can buy a brand new Eames lounge and ottoman in stores or through online retailers for $3,500 to $4,500. There have been some changes in construction techniques and materials over the decades—for example, Herman Miller has substituted more readily available woods for rosewood, the increasingly rare species originally used for the lounge and ottoman’s moulded plywood shells—but essentially the new pieces look the same as their 50-year-old counterparts.

As with any purchase, the more you know about what you’re buying, the better. And there are lots of ways to start learning about modern furniture classics. Online sources for purchasing modern and contemporary furniture, such as Canada’s Gabriel Ross and its U.S. competitor Design Within Reach not only sell a huge range of current-production and reproduction classic designs, but also post designer biographies.

Another excellent resource—particularly for people who are primarily interested in collecting pieces by today’s top designers—is the website for Vancouver’s Inform Interiors, which provides links to the websites of dozens of leading furniture manufacturers, such as Italy’s Moroso and Holland’s Moooi. Or check out the Design Boom website to read up on today’s top international designers, such as Spanish-born, Milan-based Patricia Urquiola, or France’s Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.

If you’re serious about spotting a new Newson, visit design shows and keep an eye out for prototypes—the hand-tooled originals that are produced before a design can go into production—or for small-batch production items. A big reason that Newson’s Lockheed Lounges are worth a million today is that only 10 of them were ever made. While you’re extremely unlikely to wind up as fortunate as the early buyers of the Lockheed Lounges, you increase your chances of seeing your furniture appreciate in value if you concentrate on items that are one-of-a-kind or a few-of-a-kind.

Rachel Gotlieb, a design curator and co-author of Design in Canada, suggests that those in search of something unique should consider working with designers who also build their own furniture. For prices starting at a few thousand dollars, you can obtain locally made furniture, sized and finished to suit your specific requirements. Gotlieb is a fan of Speke Klein, a firm of designer-makers in Durham, Ont., and the Toronto store Made Design, which can put clients in touch with several accomplished young designer-makers.

Well over 100 years ago, the great British designer William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” That’s still good advice. Bruce Ferguson, a New York art curator, was at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York when he saw a prototype of a striking new lounge by Matthew Kroeker, a young Winnipeg-based designer. Ferguson asked Kroeker to name a price for his Splinter lounge and bought it for $2,500. Since then, a U.S. manufacturer has picked Splinter up for production, and earlier this year the lounge won an award at the enormous NeoCon furniture fair in Chicago. Those are good indications that Kroeker’s stock is rising and that Ferguson’s Splinter prototype may turn into a valuable acquisition, but Ferguson says the financial considerations are beside the point, really. “When I saw it, I loved it,” he recalls. And after living with the Splinter prototype he still loves it, which is ample reason to consider it a good investment.