The market for 20th- and 21st-century design has been white hot, with numerous noted designers notching artist records on the block in just the past few months alone. And many of their most important works have been sold at Phillips, the boutique auction house that is a front-runner in the category. Recent record-breaking sales include Piero Fornasetti’s monumental Stanza Metafisica (Metaphysical Room) from 1958, a work formerly owned by Sting and Trudie Styler that achieved $507,000 on a $200,000 to $300,000 estimate in New York in June, and Wendell Castle’s 1974 stack-laminated walnut and leather sofa, which commanded £225,000 ($314,000) on a £140,000 to £180,000 ($195,300–$251,100) estimate in London in April.
Robb Report recently caught up with Meaghan Roddy, the senior international specialist in the design department at Phillips, to discuss the market for the most covetable works and where collectors can still find pockets of opportunity.
It seems the design market has evolved in waves in recent years, with French being in high demand, then Italian, and in time Scandinavian pieces.
I think that is true to a degree, but the biggest change that we have seen over the past decade has been a dramatic shift from cutting-edge contemporary design to a decided preference for mid-century works, be it French or Italian—particularly Italian lighting—which have been strong for a while, as well as pieces by top Scandinavian designers such as Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner. We are also seeing increased demand for American design. We set new records for Judy Kensley McKie and Wendell Castle just this past spring, and with Peter Voulkos last fall. The greatest demand is for handmade American work.
As for contemporary design, that market really peaked in 2007. In the wake of the financial crisis, there has been little fervor for collecting contemporary design. We are certainly offering less of it, with the exception of major works such as Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge. The other market areas that managed to weather that storm have been for [François-Xavier and Claude] Lalanne and Tiffany lamps.
For collectors looking to acquire works by noted designers, are there still pockets of opportunity, or are there artists whose work has been undervalued?
Absolutely. I think Shigeru Uchida has been completely overlooked and undervalued, as has Shiro Kuramata, even though he’s very well known. I think with this big [Ettore] Sottsass revival, I’d expect to see renewed interest in works by Kuramata. You might find this a bit surprising, but I think Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture has been wildly undervalued. He’s one of the most famous and important American architects and designers, yet when his furniture comes on the block, it is rarely crazy expensive.
I also think there are wonderful works by lesser-known but equally talented designers that are noteworthy. In London this past April, we offered four lots by a mid-century Milanese designer, Carlo Paccagnini, whose work had never been offered on the secondary market before. The response was incredible. I think people are just interested in finding fresh material.
Have you noticed differing tastes among design collectors in your various markets—in New York, London, and now Los Angeles?
It is really becoming more global. Take George Nakashima, for example. For a long time, we could only sell his work on the East Coast, but now we’re selling it all over the world. We’ve been selling it really well in London, and we’ve gotten a lot of traction from our Asian bidders on it.
It will be interesting to see what really sells in Los Angeles. Our private clients there are buying very similarly to what our East Coast clients and European clients are buying. I think everyone loves Les Lalanne, so that’s sort of a universal thing that everyone’s going to have. But with our expansion to the West Coast I will be curious to see what develops there. Once we start to get to know those clients and see what they’re interested in, we will see what other doors we can unlock.