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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Inside the New Modernism Design, Furniture, and Decorative Arts Course

By Valerie Hall, ISA CAPP

One concept that we learn from the beginning of our appraisal career is that nuances matter. In modern design, they are even critical. Discerning small differences is KEY to proper identification and assessment of items and, consequently, to valuation. Study of small details is a lifetime path for those interested in 20th c. Design and Decorative Arts. The upcoming Modernism: Design, Furniture, and Decorative Arts course will delve into details important in the study of 20th c. design from geographical differences, decade traits, and originality.

To demonstrate the concept of nuances, let us undertake a case study of an iconic piece of 20th c. furniture designthe Eames molded armchair.

History: The chair was designed in 1948 for the International Low-Cost Furniture Design Competition in stamped metal. To create a truly cost-effective design, the Eameses worked with Zenith Plastics who produced reinforced fiberglass for wartime aircraft radar domes. The armchair was hand produced and shown in the 1950 exhibition for the competition. After three years of close work with Zenith, mass production of the armchairs for Herman Miller commenced in 1953. This was the first one-piece plastic chair produced whose surface was left uncovered.

With a historical synopsis behind us, let us sort through some of the minor changes and differences for a chair in production from 1950-1989 and 2000-2016. Early differences center on production and design refinement. The Eameses, partly due to their training at Cranbrook, believed a design should evolve to produce the best product for the consumer. The chair was originally manufactured in three colors with actual rope embedded in the edge of the molded shell. Collectors refer to these early iterations with rope as the "rope edge." Eventually, the chair was produced in a variety of bases, but the standard aluminum base was originally attached to the shell in an "X" configuration. The aluminum base later became an "H" base for increased stability. Due to cost, the rope edge was abandoned. Seafoam green, yellow, and red colors were added to the original three-color lineup of griege, elephant-hide gray, and parchment.

For ecological reasons related to fiberglass production and end of useful life product disposal, Ray agreed with Herman Miller to cease production of the chair in 1989. In 1993, Vitra also discontinued the chair in Europe. Collectors seek the earlier versions of the chair with striated fiberglass pieces called "jakestraw." Herman Miller and Vitra resumed production in 2000 with a more eco-conscious polypropylene formulation. In 2013, Herman Miller found a way to introduce the much-preferred striations.

And this is only one example. The lifetime path of the molded armchair illustrates how nuances can prove to be to critical in Design and Decorative Arts.

Interested in further exploring this concept? Please join me in Naperville, June 15-17, for three days chock-full of case studies just like this one. You should also keep an eye out for information regarding an upcoming free webinar that Meredith Meuwly and I are creating to whet your Modernism appetite.  Feel free to contact me at with any questions.  I hope to see you this summer!


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