That 70s Look

Collectors are rediscovering the decade's sexy, sophisticated, often playfully decadent furniture.

For most design collectors, the idea of pairing objects from the seventies with prize pieces by Charlotte Perriand and Jean-Michel Frank would be unthinkable. Recently, however, those who thrive on making discoveries are taking another look at the decade that taste supposedly forgot. And they're finding a treasure-house of sleek, decadent chic. For adventurous collectors, the seventies have become the next big frontier.

"Design from that period has this magic combination of minimalism and the baroque," says Richard Wright, whose Chicago auction house specializes in 20th-century furniture and objects. "It somehow manages to take completely opposed aesthetics and put them together in a really elegant, compelling way."

Obviously Wright isn't talking about the brightly colored plastic and pop-derivative furniture that first comes to mind when you think of the seventies. He's referring to work by a group of innovative designers united by their insistence on blurring traditional dividing lines—between sculpture and functional objects, between industrial materials and luxury goods. This includes the jewellike stainless-steel tables and chairs by French designer Maria Pergay; strangely beautiful cabinets sheathed in patchworks of different metals by American Paul Evans; Italian designer Gabriella Crespi's brass tables in deceptively simple curved shapes that open like Japanese puzzle boxes; American John Dickinson's whimsically surreal plaster lamps with paws.

None of these pieces were made with the masses in mind, notes New York dealer Liz O'Brien, an early advocate for design from the period. "It was extremely sophisticated work produced for a very elite clientele," she says. Pierre Cardin bought Pergay's entire 1968 collection as soon as it was released, before the Saudi royal family hired her to be its private designer. As a decorator, Dickinson filled the homes of prominent San Francisco families with his signature white plaster creations. The Shah of Iran, Princess Grace, and Elizabeth Arden were all avid Crespi collectors, drawn to her chic brass-and-enamel desks and bars, elaborately machined to unfold, telescope, and otherwise transform themselves: Cylindrical coffee tables slide open to become bars; bars rise to become dining tables; yin and yang symbols split apart to serve as a desk and storage.

According to Jacques Grange, the interior designer who in the seventies was known to mix stainless-steel tables with Louis XIV fauteuils and objects from far-flung locales, part of the appeal of the decade's furniture is that it works well in any environment. "We could put it with everything—pieces from Asia, Morocco, all the places that we found inspiration. And it looked beautiful, perfect," he says. "It had the energy of the modern that they loved so much in high society." The combination Grange is talking about will be familiar to anyone who has seen David Bailey's photograph of Talitha Getty looking out over the rooftops of Marrakech: bohemian deluxe.

As collectors and interior designers begin to rediscover the seventies' seductive mix of avant-garde edge and high polish, prices are definitely on the upswing. "A few years ago you could hardly give a lot of this stuff away," notes Paul Johnson, owner of the Phurniture gallery in New York and something of a specialist in unexplored design territory (he supplied much of the furniture for Manhattan's Park restaurant and Maritime Hotel). In 2003 he sold a Paul Evans metal cabinet from Directional furniture for $9,000. A nearly identical one brought $60,000 at a Wright auction this past December.

That Wright sale was the first ever dedicated entirely to seventies design—a telling sign of the growing interest in the area. Pieces by Pergay, Crespi, Evans, and Dickinson were among the 127 lots offered, with mixed results. A Pergay Ring chair sold for $44,400, well over the expected $20,000 to $30,000. A set of four chairs from 1975 by the Italian designers Tobia and Afra Scarpa fetched $21,600, more than double the low estimate. At the same time, works by notable names—including a waveform stainless steel–and–leather desk by Pergay, estimated at $80,000 to $100,000—failed to find buyers.

Wright contends the uneven results were to be expected, given the newness of the collecting category. "This market is still emerging and it'll take a while for it to become clear which designers will establish themselves as solid, consistent values," he explains. The fact that there was an emphasis on artisanal production in the seventies and that many designers were primarily artists who made only a few pieces of spectacular furniture—as Philippe Hiquily did for Henri Samuel—hasn't made assessments any easier.

Suzanne Demisch of the DemischDanant gallery in New York believes it's a matter of time and scholarship. "Collectors need to know what they're looking at before there's any consensus about value," she says. "And that really takes people doing the research, writing books, and mounting exhibitions."

Not long ago, the idea of an exhibition devoted to seventies furniture would have been almost laughable. In the past two years, however, Dickinson was the subject of shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the R. Louis Bofferding gallery in New York. Paris dealer Patrick Fourtin, who focuses on modern classics by designers such as Jean-Michel Frank, highlighted Evans's work. And Demisch and partner Stephane Danant are teaming up with the Lehmann Maupin Gallery to present companion Pergay shows in New York this spring.

Interest in the seventies has led to the rediscovery of a wide range of design from the period, from the austere steel-and-glass works of Michel Boyer and François Monnet to Karl Springer's updated Deco glamour and Roger Tallon's stripped-down industrialism. There's been a particular surge of attention on François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne, the husband-and-wife team whose adventurous work from the late sixties and seventies is as likely to turn up in a contemporary art auction as in a sale of design. Poised between sculpture and furniture, the couple's surreal designs occupy a world all their own. The Lalannes' camel couch, for instance, is just what it sounds like: a couch in the form of a camel—humps, hair, and all. In December Christie's in Paris sold a flock of their sheep chairs for $389,000, and some dealers believe that prices for the couple's work will continue to rise.

Furniture by seventies designers, however large and disparate a group that may be, is a long way from the hyperrational look that has been ascendant for the past few years. But now the decade's aura of chic exuberance seems the perfect antidote to today's almost stifling good taste. "We have spent so much time with the French furniture from the forties and fifties and all this immaculate design," says James Zemaitis, head of 20th-century decorative arts at Sotheby's. "Maybe we need these things from the seventies to wake us up."


A Woman of Substance

"It's all Maria Pergay down here." That was the assessment of James Zemaitis, Sotheby's head of 20th-century decorative arts, phoning from Design.05, the new show held during Art Basel Miami Beach in November.

And no one has been more instrumental in the current buzz surrounding Pergay than New York dealers Suzanne Demisch and Stephane Danant. Their Design.05 booth featured works spanning three decades of the designer's career, from an undulating 1968 steel daybed to a new steel cabinet covered in spiky marquetry of ebony and bone. Like so much of Pergay's work, both pieces hovered between objet d'art and fine art, between elegantly cool furniture and minimalist sculpture.

Coinciding with the release of Demisch's new book, Maria Pergay: Between Idea and Design, DemischDanant and the Lehmann Maupin gallery are mounting dual Pergay exhibitions in New York, from March 30 through April 29. They showcase recent and vintage pieces by the septuagenarian French (by way of Russia) designer, whose enduring passion for steel began in 1967, when the company Ugine-Gueugnon approached her to create a line of furniture using the metal.

Prices for Pergay's works, meanwhile, continue to rise. Three years ago her iconic 1968 Ring chair—with its concentric ovals of polished steel that seem to float on a pedestal of steel ribbons—could be had for as little as $15,000. Now it sells for around $40,000. At Sotheby's in December, a lamp with sculpted fossil forms on the base went for $16,800, well above its estimate. Pergay has become, notes Chicago auctioneer Richard Wright, "a designer you can count on."


Cardin's Grand Palais

Pucci, Paco Rabanne, Gucci, and Dior all created furniture and decorative objects in the seventies. But no other designer embodied the fashion-furniture crossover like Pierre Cardin. In 1970 the man who invented prêt-à-porter produced his Meubles Sculptures in couture quantities—eight of each. With lacquered surfaces of fire-engine red and acid green, black and yellow, the pieces are characterized by sweeping curves and angular geometry that make it difficult to tell what they might be used for. Most reside at Cardin's incomparable Palais Bulles, in the hills above Cannes. Designed entirely without straight lines by Finnish architect Antti Lovag, the retrofuturist palace resembles a lost set for Barbarella. The Meubles look perfect there, as they should: According to one interview, Cardin spent 14 years—from 1975 to 1989—building the palace solely to house his furniture.


Who to Know

Suzanne Demisch & Stephane Danant Their eponymous gallery showcases high-end postwar French design in tightly curated exhibitions. New York; 212-989-5750; www.demischdanant.com

Paul Johnson His shop, Phurniture, is on top of what's next in design collecting, with pieces ranging from midcentury to edgy contemporary. New York; 212-575-2925; www.phurniture.com

Liz O'Brien With eclectic tastes that channel Jacques Grange, O'Brien sells classic midcentury alongside seventies and eighties. New York; 212-755-3800; www.lizobrien.com

John Sollo & David Rago Their modern sales feature a range of works—including a contingent of seventies design—at "livable" prices. Lambertville, NJ; 609-397-9374; www.ragoarts.com

Richard Wright One of the biggest names in the 20th-century design market, Wright auction house is a prime source for pieces from the seventies. Chicago; 312-563-0020; www.wright20.com


Coach's Reed Krakoff: Living with It

"I'm buying a lot more sixties and seventies work than I ever did before," says Reed Krakoff, CEO of Coach, the leather goods and accessories company. Adding to the already extensive design collection in his New York apartment, Krakoff recently acquired pieces by John Dickinson, Philippe Hiquily, and Maria Pergay. He also bought these Lalanne sheep chairs for $389,000 at Christie's in Paris this past December. "You can find great things from the seventies for less money than you would spend on a not-so-great piece from the forties," Krakoff notes. "The work is timeless and at the same time totally personal. You'd never mistake a Lalanne for something else." Also, the materials make seventies design easy to live with. One of his favorites is an acrylic-and-metal Pergay table. "My kids use it every day," he says, "and it still looks great."