Thursday, June 7, 2012

British Design

Lesley Jackson’s article in the Summer 2012 issue of Modernism presents an assortment of products for the home from the exhibition “British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age,” on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London through August 12, 2012 ( Jackson presents a sampling here.

S.M. Slade, Afwillite dress fabric, screen-printed rayon, produced by British Celanese, 1951.

Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Afwillite Dress Fabric

This biomorphic pattern may suggest cross-fertilization from fine art, recalling the work of artists such as Joan MirĂ³ and Hans Arp, yet this dress fabric has a proven scientific source: X-ray crystallography diagrams. It was created for a special project at the Festival of Britain, in which scientific imagery was used as the basis for pattern designs — in this case electron density maps representing the atomic structure of the mineral afwillite. The diagrams were supplied by Dr. Helen Megaw of the world-renowned Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was she who came up with the idea for the project, known as the Festival Pattern Group, and liaised between the scientists and manufacturers. S.M. Slade, who translated this diagram into a dress print, was an in-house designer at British Celanese, a manufacturer specializing in acetate rayon yarn.

Hugh Casson, Cannes tableware pattern for printed and painted Fashion earthenware,
designed by Roy Midwinter and produced by Midwinter Pottery, 1960.

Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Cannes Tableware Pattern 
Staffordshire-based Midwinter Pottery was the first British ceramics firm to adopt overtly modern styling after the World War II. The exaggerated organic shapes of this tableware, aptly titled Fashion, were developed by Roy Midwinter in 1955. He was strongly influenced by contemporary American tableware, particularly the designs of Eva Zeisel and Russel Wright, which had greatly impressed him during a sales trip to North America in 1952. Hugh Casson was one of the U.K.’s most celebrated postwar architects. As director of architecture at the Festival of Britain, he coordinated the remarkable array of modern buildings erected on London’s South Bank in 1951. Casson was renowned for his artistic dexterity. These drawings derive from his holiday sketches on the French Riviera. 

Robert Welch, Campden candelabra, stainless steel, produced by Old Hall, c. 1957.

Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Campden Candelabra

Robert Welch was one of three outstanding silversmiths who studied together at the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s, the others being David Mellor and Gerald Benney. This gifted trio revolutionized British postwar metalwork design. Welch was both a craftsman and an industrial designer, equally adept at making one-off ceremonial and ecclesiastical silver pieces and designing mass-produced stainless-steel tableware. His Campden candelabra, named after the village of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds where he lived, was part of a range manufactured by Old Hall, a firm previously associated with more conservative designs. This elegant candelabra, with its tripartite structure and attenuated stems, reflects the influence of Scandinavian Modern aesthetics but, with its dinky wooden feet, it is down-to-earth and quintessentially English as well. 

Tibor Reich, Flamingo furnishing fabric, screen-printed cotton, produced by Tibor, 1957.

Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Flamingo Furnishing Fabric

During World War II, the British textile industry was severely disrupted, and government-imposed restrictions remained in place until the end of the 1940s. This perhaps explains why there was such a surge of creativity in the 1950s: textile designers and manufacturers were finally off the leash, and consumers were desperate for new furnishings. Tibor Reich, a Hungarian-born textile designer who had come to Britain in 1937 and established his own company, Tibor, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1945, was one of the people who led this renaissance. Reich specialized in woven fabrics with what he called “deep textures,” but he also developed an innovative range of screen-printed fabrics with textural abstract patterns, marketed under the name Fotexur. Flamingo derives from a magnified photographic image of straw. The same pattern is repeated in stripes across the cloth in three different colors.

Rolling Sculpture and Modern Automotive Design

Written on the occasion of the exhibition “Sculpture in Motion: Masterpieces of Italian Design ” at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, showcasing 17 cars designed in Italy over the last 80 years, Mike Daly’s article on postwar Italian sports cars hones in on the achievements in style and performance of the great Italian coachbuilders, or carrozziere, small design firms that grew out of the 19th-century tradition of individually built horse-drawn coaches. “More commonly known today for their designs of exotic makes like Ferrari and Maserati,” writes Daly, “companies such as Pininfarina, Zagato and Touring of Milan were also important innovators whose ideas informed ensuing decades of mass-market automotive styling.”

Mike Daly is a Los Angeles-based automotive writer and historian whose work has appeared in numerous national lifestyle and automotive magazines.  In addition to writing late-model reviews and covering the collector/classic car niche, he regularly researches and writes for the catalogues of some of the hobby’s leading auctioneers.

Here are a few cars with Mike Daly’s commentary to whet your appetite. You can read the full article in Modernism’s Spring 2012 issue.

This 1959 Ferrari 400 Superamerica, the first of it kind, wears a one-off body designed and built by coachbuilder Pininfarina.  Displayed at the Ferrari booth at the 1959 Turin Auto Show, the car is an early take on a luxury Ferrari, a concept the company would increasingly explore over ensuing decades."

Photo by Mike Daly.

Photo by Mike Daly.

General Motors participated in a few collaborations with Italian coachbuilders, notably with the Cadillac Series 62.  Torinese coachbuilder Ghia, best known for the body design of the prolific Karmann-Ghia Volkswagen, built this uniquely styled coachwork on the chassis of a 1953 Cadillac Series 62.  Already defined as the pinnacle of American postwar automotive elegance, the Cadillac was a perfect subject for a Ghia interpretation. The coachbuilder constructed just two examples of the 1953 Cadillac Ghia, one of which was given to actress Rita Hayworth by her husband Ali Khan, who was likely trying to ease the woes of an imminent divorce. A Petersen Automotive Museum holding, the Rita Hayworth Cadillac exhibits Ghia’s high-waisted, small-canopy treatment, but adds deco-styled chrome spears to the sides, perhaps an intentional reference to the movie theater marquees of the actress’s heyday.

Photo courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Coachbuilder Bertone’s design for the body of the 1970 Lancia Stratos Zero concept car proved to be a forerunner of the wedge shapes that dominated sports car production during the 1970s and ‘80s.  The aesthetic became prevalent in brands such as Lotus and Lamborghini, for which Bertone also designed the iconic Countach model.

Photo by Tom Wood © 2011. Courtesy of RM Auctions.

Park Hill: Taming a Modernist Monster

In his article, "Park Hill: Urban Optimism Then and Now," Edwin Heathcote, architecture and design critic of The Financial Times of London, considers the adaptive reuse of one of the U.K.'s most massive and ambitious modernist public developments. Conceived to ameliorate the living conditions of residents of the working-class community of Park Hill, in the center of the faltering steel town of Sheffield, the development replaced an old community of brick row houses with high-rise residential buildings, starting in the early 1960s.

The narrow, snaking structures were only one apartment deep, providing bright, airy interiors with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Initially, the apartments were seen as highly desirable and the project was widely praised by architects and planners. However, "within a decade of Park Hill’s completion in the 1970s," writes Heathcote, "rain had stained its concrete, graffiti had appeared in its increasingly dark recesses and the development had become known primarily as a place for dumping problem families." But instead of demolishing it, as many other cities have done with their failed housing projects, the city of Sheffield sold the complex for one British pound to an innovative developer, Urban Splash, known for industrial loft conversions in England's economically battered industrial cities.

In conjunction with two architecture firms, Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West, Urban Splash has transformed the drab, decaying buildings into bright, colorful, welcoming homes. The apartments, in their original duplex configurations, are a mix of subsidized and market rate, with the idea that an economically diverse community has more potential for vibrancy and success than a segregated one. To demonstrate the apartments' potential, Urban Splash commissioned the decoration of a number of model units. While the changes, including the colorful aluminum panels on the facade and larger windows, have ruffled the feathers of some purists, others see the new Park Hill as a model for saving large modernist projects that have fallen on hard times.

The new Park Hill, after renovation.
Photo by Daniel Hopkinson
Park Hill comprises several buildings connected by elevated walkways.
Photo by Keith Collie.
The corner staircases connect the buildings to intra- and inter-building walkways and to the ground.
Photo by Daniel Hopkinson.

The concrete buildings were enlivened by the addition of colorful panels and the fenestration was increases.
Photo by Daniel Hopkinson.
The duplex apartments have balconies and expansive views of the countryside.
Photo by Daniel Hopkinson.
The contrast of the old and new Sheffield.
Photo by Daniel Hopkinson.
Photo by Daniel Hopkinson.
The neon sign "I LOVE YOU WILL U MARRY ME" was  installed on the  bridge between two blocks of Park Hill in June 2011 to mark the development's 50th anniversaryll. Graffiti, spelling out I LOVE YOU WILL U MARRY ME on this same bridge had become an iconic image of Park Hill over the years and its heritage and romance is celebrated with this permanent neon light display.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
Above and following two photos: This model interior with the theme "Midcentury Modern First Love"
was designed by Studio Egret West.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
Above and below: Interiors by the interior design firm No Chintz to illustrate how an apartment could be occupied by mature downsizers.
Photo by Peter Bennett.

Photo by Peter Bennett.

The second-yearr students of Sheffield Hallam University designed this model apartment.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
 Above and following two photos: Interiors by Hawkins\Brown with the theme "Second Life."
Photo by Peter Bennett.
The red dining chairs are by Emeco, the Blow sofa by Malafor, "Make Your Own Damn Art" painting by Bob and Roberta Smith.
Photo by Peter Bennett.
The bedding is by Sally Spencer Davies of Maid in Barnet.
Photo by Peter Bennett.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Collecting Modern Jewelry

Sarah Churgin, director of jewelry and silver sales at Rago Auctions, sat down with Modernism to talk about modern jewelry collecting. What follows is an edited interview. 

What is the difference between modern jewelry and costume jewelry?

Modernism in jewelry is wearable art. The person who wears that is somebody who has no fear and somebody who will be different. The person who buys costume jewelry, which is mass-produced, is somebody who is looking to fit in. Like any other trend, modernist styles became part of the vernacular, and they have filtered into costume jewelry. 

This men’s sculptural ring by Sam Kramer, made of silver and fused copper with a bezel-set nephrite cabochon, will be on sale at Rago Auctions’ 20th/21st Century Design Auction on June 17. Estimate is $1,000 to $2,000. For more information, visit or call 609/397-9374.

Courtesy Rago Arts. 

Sometimes you see a transition over time from studio work to costume jewelry. An example is Frank Rebaje. The studio work is pretty great. It’s sculptural. It comes from a craft background where he is expressing his point of view as a maker. He later transitioned to costume jewelry, with dozens or hundreds working for him, and mass producing and retailing all over the United States. Sometimes, as with Rebaje, the lines blur. These pieces are still very good for a new collector — inexpensive and nice.

Modern jewelry does not need to be made out of precious materials. The reasons for not using precious materials include, among others, that an emerging artist might not be able to afford precious materials; the artist hasn’t been trained to work with them; or it is political, such as the artist feels that there is too much exploitation in the production of precious goods. The Arts & Crafts artists eschewed the use of precious gems and metal for such social purposes, but that doesn’t mean that Arts & Crafts jewelry can’t have precious metals or gems.  Some artists start out with non-precious materials, but use them later in their career. What distinguishes modern jewelry is the intention of the maker and the wearer. The person who wears a piece of modern jewelry is saying, This is a piece of art and I’m allowing myself to be a walking avatar for this artist. Jewelry says who you are, but modern jewelry is more about art than precious metal.

Modernist jewelry did not occur in a vacuum. The notion of somebody expressing himself in an egalitarian way is directly connected to the Arts & Crafts movement, although with different stylistic influences. Arts & Crafts goes back to naturalistic forms, or Japanese or Celtic traditions. Modernism is breaking with tradition. You see a lot of Arts & Crafts and modernist jewelry in the United States because the country is newer, without a strong guild tradition; craftspeople didn’t have to learn at the foot of a master. Here we have the concept that everyone can be an artist. You too can pick up a soldering gun. When we were isolated during World War II from the influences of Europe, we blossomed. It was really good for our jewelry industry, both fine and costume jewelry.

How can you judge the quality of a piece of modernist jewelry?

Look at how the piece is made. Turn it over front to back, and ask yourself if the fittings are consistent and suitable to the form of the piece. A fitting is a clasping hook or other part that the artist builds himself. A finding is ordered from a manufacturer who makes parts for the jewelry industry. Look for findings that are heavy enough and in scale with the size of the piece. In the last quarter of the 19th century, there was an explosion of mass-produced parts for the jewelry industry, but there are still jewelers today who make their own fittings. Carry a 10x loupe and don’t be afraid to use it. It makes the dealer aware that you are alert. Look for signs of restoration, such as sloppy lead solder work, changes in patina where there shouldn’t be any, things that don’t quite match. If there are stones on the piece, make sure that each setting and stone appears consistent with the others.  

If you are starting out as a collector, a good way to learn is to search out a piece by one of the masters. Looking at jewelry is just like looking at art. A piece has to speak with a single voice. Hold it in your hand until you have internalized the mind of the artist. Handling a piece of jewelry puts you in direct connection with the hand of the artist. Experts know the essential and can say, this is his or not his, or was his and somebody changed it. You can learn that by going to the shows and asking to handle the pieces. Most dealers are truly passionate about their subject and will welcome the opportunity to share their knowledge with you.

A collector should not take anything at face value. All facts and claims should be on the receipt in writing. If someone sells you a Claire Falkenstein, get it in writing. Then take it to a specialist and check. If they say it is counterfeit, you have recourse.

This sterling silver and 18k gold necklace with amethyst, crystal and geodes was created in the 1970s  by Jean Vendome of France. It is being offered for sale at Michaan’s Auctions on June 9. Estimate between $1,500 and $2,000. For information, visit or call 510/-740-0220.

Courtesy Michaan’s. Auctions.

What kind of prices should collectors expect at auction?

Alexander Calder: A Calder brass necklace sold at Sotheby’s in 2005 for $352,000. Other pieces of jewelry of his have sold for more than $100,000.

Harry Bertoia brooches and pendants have been sold for $1,000 to $58,000, with many pieces in the low thousands.

There is a wide range of prices for Claire Falkenstein’s work, from  $1,700 for a copper pendant to $21,000 for a copper and glass necklace.

Prices for Art Smith range from as little as $600 for a ring to as much as $22,500 for a brass necklace.

Margaret De Patta’s pieces range from $6,000 to $21,000.

Sam Kramer brooches range from about $3,000 to $5,000.

Ed Wiener’s pieces sell for the hundreds into the thousands of dollars.

Looking beyond the United States, new collectors might also seek out the following:

Mexico: Margot of Taxco, Antonio Pineda and Hector Aguilar. Prices start in the hundreds and go into the thousands of dollars.

Scandinavia: Postwar designers for Georg Jensen — prices start at a few hundred dollars; Bent Knudsen, Hans Hansen and N.E. From — prices range from the low hundreds to above $1,000.

Additional Resources
These books offer a good introduction to the artists of modernist jewelry.

Modernist Jewelry 1930 to 1960: The Wearable Art Movement by Marbeth Schon
Form & Function, American Modernist Jewelry, 1940 – 1970 by Marbeth Schon
Messengers of Modernism, American Studio Jewelry 1940 to 1960, edited by Martin Eidelberg Warman’s Jewelry by Christie Romero

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dan Duckham, Florida Architect

In the 1950s, Dan Duckham began developing an architectural style influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and geared to the Florida climate. Here are some of his projects. For the full story on Dan Duckham, order the Summer 2011 issue of Modernism.

Fabulous British Fabrics

Shirley Craven and other designers at the Hull Traders textile company produced some of the most original and popular fabrics in Great Britain at mid-century. With their big, bold patterns and bright colors, with long vertical repeats, the fabrics — silk-screened by hand — were most commonly used as drapes for the new modernist buildings of the time, a perfect foil for enormous windows and stark interiors. Here are a few fabrics produced by Hull Traders. For the full story of Shirley Craven and Hull Traders, see the Summer 2011 issue of Modernism.

Tools at School

What famous design school won the ICFF Editor’s Award in the School category this year? Tools at Schools, a collaboration among the eighth-graders at The School at Columbia University, a K – 8 school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the creative consultancy Aruliden and Bernhardt Design. A pilot project for integrating design into education, Tools at School was driven by the conviction that the design process can teach children “how to create, how to question the obvious, how to communicate their ideas, and how things are actually made” as they engage with math, writing, science, art and technology and learn practical skills they will need in the real world. Here are some photos of the process and the results. For more information about Tools at Schools, visit