Modern design is a rising department in auctions worldwide. Artistic quality and uniqueness of a piece of furniture can fetch astronomical prices we see only at fine art auctions. For curious minds, we have listed 5 most expensive design furniture ever sold at an auction. Scroll down for number 1!
7. Eileen Gray’s Folding “Brick” Screen
Eileen Gray designed this screen for her lover, Romanian architect Jean Badovici‘s apartment in Paris. Unique in its arrangement and design and among the largest screens by Grey, this lot features thirty-six full bricks with raised panels on either side and eight half-bricks, all forty-four of which are held together by threaded mild steel rods surmounted by domed brass spanner nuts of the same design as those on Gray’s “Transat” chair (circa 1926-1930), also owned by Badovici.
Gray’s lacquered ‘Brick’ screens of the 1920s abandoned Art Deco’s burly ornamentation and volumetric curves in favour of stricter geometry of modern design, although Grey always avoided to be consumed by only one style. “Brick” screens are in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Only a maximum of 10 Brick Screens by Grey exist in the world.
6. Isamu Noguchi Table
Noguchi once said “Everything is Sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.” One of two Isamu Noguchi tables on this list, this unique sculptural table was custom designed for Mr. and Mrs. Samuel C. Dretzin, in 1948-49, and stayed in their home until its first appearance at an auction, in 2012 Christie’s New York. One of Isamu Noguchi’s rare private design commissions, this sublime table defies the pragmatic constraints of mere furniture, on the fine line between fine art and design. It is like a sculpture you can have dinner on! The Dretzkins placed the softly carved and polished fossil marble table in their summer house in Chappaqua, NY, alongside with works by Georgia O’Keefe and Henry Moore.
5. Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge
European furniture design of the 1980s was characterised by two extremes: on the one hand the flamboyant post-modern style of Ettore Sottsass and Milan’s Memphis group; on the other the punk-inspired ‘creative salvage’ spirit of Ron Arad and Tom Dixon, who forged ahead with found or industrialised materials. Although he was a world away in Australia, Marc Newson was neither unaware nor immune from these divergent styles. In that context, his iconic “Lockheed Lounge” can be read as both sleek and flamboyant while also evocative of a punk Mad Max approach to futurism.
Through its labour-intensive and artisanal production, ‘Lockheed Lounge’ reveals an inherent understanding of the relationship between the human body and an object. Sculpted from a foam surfboard blank, then cast in fibreglass, the surface is sheathed in hand-hammered, thin-walled aluminium sheets fixed with blind rivets. While austere in its casing, its curvaceous form is undeniably sensual and provocative (a quality that earned the ‘Lockheed’ a starring role in Madonna’s 1993 Rain video). Yet it’s because of its formal rigor that Newson’s chair truly takes flight. Named after the American aircraft manufacturer, ‘Lockheed Lounge’s riveted body is a palpable metaphor for an airplane fuselage. ‘Lockheed Lounge’ is included in the permanent collections of key museums including the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, as well as important private collections. (Source: Phillips Catalogue, The Lockheed Lounge in Context, by Libby Sellers)
4. “Ski” Chaise-Longue by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann
The fourth lot on our list is the “Ski” Chaise by famous French Art Deco designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. This somewhat quirky piece is a one off production might strike as a dentist chair at first. But it is designed to make the sitter weightlessly comfortable.
The curved legrest and perfectly angled back are covered with brown velvet. The chair is equipped with 4 buttons to adjust the position, which was a technological wonder for 1929. The chaise is fitted on a pair of skis, which form the legs and give the design its name. Possibly commissioned by the Maharajah of Indore, this chaise lounge is more modern compared to Ruhlmann’s other designs -normally featuring tropical wood and ivory ornaments- and exhibits an interesting twist in his career.
3. The Goodyear Table by Isamu Noguchi
After nearly two decades spent producing figurative works in bronze and terracotta, and more specifically a long series of commercially successful portrait sculptures, Isamu Noguchi boldly returned to abstraction with this design in 1939. Commissioned by A. Conger Goodyear, President of the Museum of Modern Art, this piece of art furniture was Noguchi’s first table, and the start of his famous series of abstract works, including his famous “interlocking” sculptures.
The table was designed for Goodyear’s weekend house in Old Westbury, New York. Comprising stack-laminated rosewood and Herculite plate glass, the Goodyear Table mimicked the texture and materials—stacked bricks, plate glass windows—of the building for which it was commissioned, the Goodyear House by Edward Durrell Stone. Paul Goldberger, former architecture critic at the New Yorker, has called the Goodyear House “one of the most important houses built in the United States between the two world wars.” (Source: Phillips catalogue essay “The First Table: A Pivot to Abstraction“)
2. Unique Cabinet by Jean-Michel Frank
This late Art Deco treasure with an opalescent gleam, made by Jean-Michel Frank sold for € 3,681,500, much greater than its humble price estimate € 400,000 — 600,000, at Sotheby’s Paris. Featuring gypsum panels set in a solid bronze frame, this design embodies Frank’s style perfectly. Jean-Michel Frank is a rare genius who could combine flamboyant Art Deco with absolute minimalism. His choice of material was also unconventional. Gypsum is a mineral that comes to life by absorbing salt water, which results in a flaky, crystalline appearance with a chalky, neutral colour. It becomes plaster when it’s demineralized. However in this design, it looks like a material between mother of pearl and ivory. This cabinet is the only piece of gypsum furniture known – an enthralling example of design simplicity and minimalist chic, in line with Frank’s ambition to produce “luxury from nothing.” It stands as an early example of the theory “Less is more” and for an exciting period in art history when designers were experimenting both with new forms and materials. This cabinet by Frank also stands for a nostalgic adhesion to the glamour of the old world, in 1935 when industrial materials and extreme modernism was taking over the design scene, either with cold tubular steel or warm plywood, but always extreme functionalism and humanism. Perhaps Frank wanted to resist that. And always appreciating luxury, the Paris crowd loved it when it was first exhibited to the public in 1936, at the Galerie Art et Industrie, Formes d’aujourd’hui Exhibition.
1. Eileen Gray’s Dragon Chair
If you are sitting down, we are ready to reveal the most expensive design furniture ever sold at an auction. It is Eileen Gray’s Dragon Chair from 1917-1919, which sold for € 21,905,000. That equaled £ 19.4 million or $ 28,238,277 when it was sold in February 2009, despite the global recession shrinking luxury markets.
Relatively small with 61 cm in height and 91 cm width, Fauteuil aux dragons or the Dragon Chair was estimated to fetch only £ 3 million at the auction but the frantic bidding between collectors has pulled it up to six times the estimate and the winner of the unique piece was specialist Paris art gallery Robert and Cheska Vallois. Originally owned by Suzanne Talbot, Grey’s first patron, the chair was auctioned from the collection of famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who was a fan and collector of Gray’s work.
The chair features a sculpted wooden frame, lacquered brownish orange and silver. Two sculptural arm supports are modelled as intertwined bodies of two dragons, whose bodies are decorated in low relief with stylised clouds and eyes are drawn in black lacquer on a white background.
The dragon has a history in Chinese iconography as a symbol of strength and goodness, with the power to protect and guard. The dragon is often illustrated toying with a pearl (zhu) which in turn is a symbol of strength associated with the moon and thunder; this ovoid jewel can represent omnipotence or the light of the moon. The entire sculptural form of the present armchair could be interpreted as representing a pearl within its shell, encircled by the dragons.
The exotic, symbolist character of the piece situates it conceptually within the first phase of Miss Gray’s creative cycle. It aligns with the figurative panels and screens that can be traced to her first public exhibit in 1913 and the first published feature on her, in British Vogue, of 1917; it has an altogether different spirit from that evidenced in reductionist features such as the “brick” wall panelling and screens she did later on, one of which is listed as number five in this list. The armchair refines everything personal and magical in the first, intimately expressive phase of Miss Gray’s career — surprising, imaginative, subtly sculpted and crafted, it is a masterpiece of invention and execution. (Source: Christie’s Lot Essay)
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