Martin Willis: Hi, everyone. I’m with Richard Wright on Skype in Chicago. How you doing, Richard?
Richard Wright: I’m doing fine. Good morning to you.
Martin: Good morning and thanks for joining us. This is the second time you’ve been on.
Martin: You were all the way back in the beginnings of this podcast and I appreciate your willingness to come back, and today we’re going to stay on a, or mostly on a topic, of mid–century modern, just for our listeners, out there, who have an interest in that, and so I’m going to, just, fire some questions at you. Your company’s been around for a while and you’ve handled – I saw on your website you’ve handled over 20,000 objects, so far.
Richard: That is true.
Martin: And, encompassing, mostly, the 20th and 21st century, basically. Right?
Martin: Yeah. So, as far as mid–century modern – that’s a term you hear all the time, today, and, what does it actually mean and what are the years it encompasses when it comes to furniture and decorative arts?
Richard: So, mid–century modern is generally – there’s not a strict definition of it, but, generally, it falls into the category of post–war design. So it begins in 1945 and it, sort of, runs stylistically to, about, 1960. After 1960 you start to have other influences in design that, sort of, move design in a more radical place. So, real, kind of, heroic mid–century modern is 1945 to 1960.
Martin: So, again, you said that it’s not really strictly defined, because I’ve seen people sell 1970s items and call it mid-century modern. It’s, kind of, stretching it, a little bit, in the 70s.
Richard: Totally. I mean, I think that the concerns of design, the design world, coming out of the war were completely different than the, much more consumer-driven, culture of the 1970s design. There is a absolute stylistic shift that starts to occur, probably strictly, we’d start to see that shift show up in the late 50s – 1958, 1959. I’m using 1960 as a nice, round number, but mid-century modern really is – it is a cohesive style, visually. That style starts to fragment later on in the century.
Martin: Now, do you call that The Brady Bunch 70s?
Richard: Yeah, well, I think I would approach it from the higher end, which would be a radicalization of design it’s – but, certainly at the mass–culture level it is at, sort of, op art, pop art sensibility. I mean, one thing you see in the second half of the century is the speed up of consumer culture and the ability of that consumerism to absorb new styles very quickly, and that’s something that’s happening today and is quite fascinating. So, the difference – the amount of time that the avant–garde design moves to the mainstream becomes shorter and shorter. Again, that process is going on, today.
Martin: Now, why is the mid-century modern design popular in today’s world?
Richard: I think the mid–century modern, at its best, has a sense of timelessness about it. I mean, it has a modern sensibility, if coarse, so it doesn’t have the timelessness of your grandfather’s antiques, but it has a purity of design that is – that really stands apart from many other works from the century. I think that – I often think of this work as being heroic design. The Second World War had ended and design really took upon itself to try to create, not just a utopian vision, but to try to really take some of the lessons that were learned in the war, in terms of new materiality, new manufacturing processes, and bring that to furniture design that would make people’s lives better. There was an absolute sense of very lofty goals for the furniture, and it was also the first time that America led the design world, so I think that there is a natural, enduring appeal, for American collectors, for, sort of, classic, American mid–century design.
Martin: Now, would – how does Frank Lloyd Wright fall into all of this?
Richard: Frank Lloyd Wright, obviously, comes out of the turn of the century. Frank Lloyd Wright – he really is tied into several generations, earlier, of design. I mean, I think he ties into it in terms of his growth as an architect continuing into the – to expand organic design to include things like the Guggenheim Museum and the, sort of, curvilinear side of organic versus his earlier prairie style, which was in nature but was very rectilinear. The decorative arts that are associated with that sort of architecture, his work, Joseph Hoffman, the Austrian Viennese School, is very separate from concerns about ergonomics, human form, it, sort of, perversely, points to nature, but it’s completely geometric, which is quite in opposition to nature. So, he’s – it is – it’s, really, after Frank Lloyd Wright – I mean, Frank Lloyd Wright was never – he never, really, did mid–century modern, in my opinion. I mean, he did some decorative arts in the 50s, but they were – it, really, just updated of his earlier design works. He’s really just, stylistically, not part of that movement.
Martin: Was his son involved in any mid–century – I know his son designed some furniture. Was he involved in any mid–century furniture?
Richard: I think, just, purely on a timeline you would say yes, but, again, stylistically, I would argue no. In stylistically, he is, sort of, a – contemporarily quoting his father’s work, or channeling his father’s work. In terms of the story of design I think of that as – it’s just a little cul–de–sac. It’s not part of the larger story of design in the century, and, sort of, the emerging narrative that’s – it just – it isn’t. Frank Lloyd Wright’s certainly is, earlier on, but not later in terms of the dec arts, and, certainly, Lloyd Wright is not, in terms of decorative art, or architecture, I would argue, for Lloyd. Frank Lloyd Wright you can’t deny.
Martin: I have talked to a few different people around the country about what it hot and what is not and I was surprised that there are, like, pockets in areas that people are, really, not all that interested in the mid–century modern look. Would you say that it’s mostly concentrated in the big cities, where this is popular?
Richard: Well, I guess I probably see it a little bit differently. I mean, I do think that it is more of an urban design movement, no doubt, but we get things from all over the country and there are pockets of collectors, literally, all over the country. To your point, the highest concentration is: New York, L. A., Miami, but I think that the appeal of it, especially to a younger collector, is more broad. I tend to see it break out along generational lines and I think that if you are of a certain age you may have a negative connotation with mid–century and think of it as being cheaply manufactured and, I think, sometimes if you’ve lived through an era it can feel a little too close to you. I’ve gone through that experience, myself, in learning to appreciate 70s and 80s design, which is something that was not innate to me. I didn’t live through the 50s so the – again, my heroic vision of it, the narrative of the design is close enough that I can connect to it, but I have enough distance that I see it a little more purely.
Martin: Now, speaking of the collector that collects these type of things, what would you say the general demographics are?
Richard: Well, I mean, the demographics are fairly broad. I think that there are, at the high end it tends to, actually, be a little bit of an older client because they have more disposable income. I think, at a interest level it, really, cuts to very young people all the way through people in their 50s, 60s that are, sort of, doing a second home or empty nesters that are, sort of, doing something a little more – little less traditional. So, it’s, really, quite broad. In the demographic I see a lot of people who have a bias or interest in visual culture, so people that are in the film industry, in fashion, in the art world, there’s a very high concentration of collectors within the modern and contemporary dealers of fine art. I mean, the – we have a pretty good number of some of the major contemporary artists tend to like this, sort of, very visual furniture, so it’s, sort of, a natural that people that like that visual play are drawn to this sort of work.
Martin: As far as your background goes, gaining all this knowledge, what drew you, initially, to the 20th century and 21st century design, in general?
Richard: I was really drawn to this area of collecting because of the accessibility and affordability of it. I began in this business 26 years ago, or something, in the 80s, and I was right out of college. I had very little money. I was, just, very captivated by the adventure of it all, and, being a visual person, I was drawn to the best–looking, cheapest items I could find, and that was mid–century. At that time, the real challenge was selling it, not getting it, so it was quite a – there was a – there was – it was widely available and so it allowed me to really learn the material and to, really – been involved in the formation of the market. So, the success of my business has been very tied to the fact of having deep contacts, because I was in it, I’d say, before there was even a market.
Martin: Wow, that’s interesting! Now, say a popular magazine comes out featuring a certain design. Does that affect the market in any type of way?
Richard: I think that it does. I mean, I don’t know that it’s so direct that there’s one magazine that has a lot of power, but I think that people should be clear that fashion affects collecting tastes. So, the value and desirability of categories of collecting do rise when they’re – when they seem and feel and are presented as being fashionable. This plays out in the fine art world, as well, which, I think, many people don’t want to see, but it clearly plays out in the decorative art world. So, there is a bit of sorting out of what is fashionable and what is iconic and what is important. Those are all, sort of, different things and all those – you know, you start to make choices as a collector, and you can be furnishing, which many people are, you can be furnishing and collecting, or you can be purely collecting and not really using the furniture, and we cater to those, broadly, those three different audiences.
Martin: Do you believe that this trend of people being interested in mid-century modern – do you think that’s going to be ongoing, for a while?
Richard: I think that the category of collecting is very durable. I think that it’s place in the history of design is – you can’t debate the importance of that era in the history of design. I think that the – any market is constantly in flux, and I think that the collecting tastes do change. I mean, one of the things I’m proudest about in my company is that we continue to evolve new markets. I believe that we try to lead collecting tastes and we also follow collecting tastes. We’re not in a vacuum, so I’m not selling the exact same product that I sold twelve years ago when I opened. It’s a different product mix. I think that the visual interest of vintage design, historical items, is incredible durable. Things from the past have a power for us, today, and I think that as the classic modern gets older and older the power of that continues to increase, and that, in many cases, especially with the important pieces, the value has increased, as well.
Martin: I’ve been a collector of antique boats for a long time, and I, currently, have just one, right now – it’s not, really, an antique it’s a ’63, but I also have a brand new boat and there’s no connection – I don’t feel the connection with my new boat as I do with my antique boat, and I think there’s something to be said about a history of a product and the nostalgia that it brings back when you’re living with something.
Richard: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that you feel the past life of objects and I think that if you are, at all, sensitive you feel the power of certain objects. I know very little about vintage boats, but I can see a beautiful wooden boat on the water and just – it just stands out and it’s – so there’s a visual power and there, to your point, there’s also an intangible presence. One of the things that I worry about, with mid–century, is the – sometimes the over–bias to refinishing things and – because the work’s not that old trying to make it perfect or look new. To me, that’s a huge mistake. I like to feel the life accruing on a piece of furniture – well cared for, not abused, but that’s what gives it its character, it’s patina, as we all refer to.
Martin: Right. Now, when does it – when would you say that it crosses the line? When it’s, like, seriously water–stained, or something like that?
Richard: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s – that line is different for every collector, so, there’s not a clear answer. I think of things that have been well cared for and show their age as having an attractive patina. If things show evidence of being in someone’s basement and abused or just, kind of, ignored, yeah that’s less interesting, visually, then, sort of adopting the abandoned dog. So, it’s – but there’s a lot of grey area in between and it can depend on your interior. I get why people want things to be refinished, as well, so I understand both sides of it.
Martin: Yes. Along – sort of, along those lines I always bring up fakes in my podcast and is there more of an issue with knock–offs of design than there is with fakes?
Richard: There’s been some issues with both. I mean, certainly, there’s been a wide number of reproductions and knock–offs of things and that has cut – that’s really hurt some markets. Often times it’s less the fact that you’re confusing the reproduction with the original. It’s usually, if you have any level of expertise, pretty easy to decipher 90 – I’ll say 98% of the time, but it has watered down the look and watered down the desirability in some markets. Take something like George Nelson clocks. George Nelson was one of the major designers for mid–century for a clock company in Michigan: The Howard Miller Clock Company. His office designed about 150 different clocks in a very – like, 5 year window of time. They’re unbelievable in their quirkiness and in their visual sophistication and in their exploration of deconstructing the clock. There is a very core group of collectors that used to buy – the market does still exist, but they used to buy these clocks very passionately. Vitra Design Museum started reissuing nearly all of them. It was shocking, to what extent, they reissued these clocks and the accessibility of the clocks that looked, from the exterior, without picking them up, they looked like 95% correct. I mean, they were very faithfully done. The value in that market came down 60, 70%. It just hurt things, and made it less interesting because now you see the clocks in gift shops and they’re, sort of – the desirability of the rare item comes down if it’s widely reproduced.
Martin: Yes. I’ve seen that happen in many different designs in pieces, over the years, where something is copied and, all of a sudden, it does affect the originals. I don’t think I’d really want something you’d find at a gift shop, so – totally understand that. What would you consider would be, as far as furniture goes, what’s the American Holy Grail of mid–century modern furniture?
Richard: Probably the designs done by this sculptor Isamu Noguchi. I think you could debate which one of these quirky designs is the Holy Grail – famous cloud sofa or his famous chess table or one of his unique custom tables, but his furniture, to me, sums up what was going on in America in the Post War, because it is incredible beautiful. It’s incredibly optimistic. It’s, really, a fusion of art and design and it was produced by a major furniture manufacturer to be marketed to the masses. It’s – so, to me, the idea that a corporate entity saw the possibility of, not just good design, but truly challenging, great design was amazing and most of them were commercial flops, but one of the tables that he designed has been in constant production. It’s a wooden – it’s just a coffee table with a glass top on a tripod wooden base – very, very famous table. God knows how many were made and are still being made. Some of the rarer tables from Noguchi, though, are the most valuable and probably the most sought–after. There was just a unique marble table done by Noguchi that turned up in Massachusetts, not too far away from you, and it was made in the 1940s. It was fantastic. I competed very hard to try to get the table. I ended up not getting it. It went to Christie’s, and it sold for $2.5 million.
Martin: Oh! Wow! I would say that’s the Holy Grail!
Richard: Yeah, that’s the Holy Grail. Earlier in my career, in 2005, I had a Noguchi table that was mass –produced. We don’t know how many. I mean, mass–produced meaning it was made by Herman Miller. It wasn’t made by Noguchi, as opposed to the other table. We sold that for $625,000, back then, so there’s a very – Noguchi occupies a very special place.
Martin: Along the same lines, what is the most popular, sought–after decorative art?
Richard: There’s probably not one iconic decorative art item, but mid–century modern really was interpreted throughout the range of the decorative arts. In America there’s a very quirky set of lamps that was produced in 1951, and first shown at the museum of modern art. It was a very interesting time when museums sponsored design competitions, and there’s a series of lighting that was produced by Heifetz that comes out of that – out of a 1951 low–cost lighting design competition. There’s wonderful metal work that’s done at that time that has the same, sort of, mid–century exuberance done right here in America, and you can’t fail but mention Italian glass. There’s a incredible Renaissance of, really, mid –century style that occurs in Italy, in Murano, with, sort of, a reawakening of the traditional crafts brought to life by the new visual aesthetics of the Post War Era.
Martin: Now, who would you say your sellers are, for the most part? Is it the baby boomers?
Richard: Yeah, I mean, for the most part – well, it’s – the collecting category as – it’s starting to become mature enough that it’s a mixture of things coming out of original homes and things coming – recycled from collectors. We’re starting to see the beginning of significant collections coming back onto the market. We’re, of course, always excited to get the call, or more likely the email, of somebody’s estate. Sounds morbid, but auctions are – we always talk about the 3 Ds: debt, divorce, and death are the drivers of many of the property that comes to market, so, what’s exciting about this area of collecting: things are still coming fresh to the market. I think that collecting categories get stale when there’s not new material, so I just told you the story about the Noguchi table that just sold this spring. That would have been the – I’m going to cry talking about it, but it would have been the finest piece that I ever would have handled in my career, so, I’ve done this 26 years. It’s exciting for me to think that those big fish are still out there in the sea. That’s what is great about that area and, honestly, about what I do.
Martin: Well, I wish you got that. I know what it’s like to lose a really good piece. It’s not fun. You just give it your best shot and when you’re competing against a major auction house, like that, it’s tough.
Richard: It’s tough when you get to – I think what’s interesting for me is the rise in valuations on the pieces. I learned a lot competing for that table and to lose a million dollar plus piece to an international auction house based in New York City is not so hard. The fact that I felt – really, Sotheby’s was taken out fairly early. It really came down between me and Christie’s. To be able to even be in the running for a piece at that level I felt very proud. It’s also fascinating, to me, to be contemplating seven–figure prices for decorative art items that – I started in this business as a dealer with $2,000.00, so it’s come a long way in the years I’ve been involved.
Martin: You’ve done a wonderful job and we’ll talk a little bit about that, later. What, as far as mid– century, in general, what advice would you give to someone who’s interested in starting to collect?
Richard: I mean, I think the number one thing for anybody beginning to collect is to do your homework. I think that the more you learn about the period the more you’ll appreciate the work and the more pleasure you’ll get from it. It’s also – there are lots of different levels you can collect at, but it is, as we’ve been discussing – you can spend a lot of money. You, certainly, don’t need to spend millions, but you can spend significant amounts buying this furniture, now. You can also buy it at a lower level that’s very valid, but you need to understand the differences between that. You don’t want to overpay for items, and, I think, you also don’t want to under–collect. If you are going to, actually, be living with these things over years, sometimes the less expensive item, or the more common item, will end up yielding less pleasure. You’ll get tired of it sooner. I’ve seen that in my own collecting, so getting educated is the best place to start. The good news is there’s just a ton of information, now, which was so different than when I started. The auction houses are a great place to start. We all keep our sales online. Everything I’ve ever sold is archived on my website. You can search and see great photos, great write– ups, and see price points, and there are still – there are good dealers. I mean, people want to talk about – we like sharing our information about this period, so ask questions and there’s a ton of books. You go out and you buy the books and you do your research and it’s a fun journey.
Martin: Along those lines, if someone contacts you do you give any free advice?
Richard: Oh, yeah. Most of our days are spent responding, again, most of it, now, is through email, but we’re happy to give free auction estimates to anybody. I mean, that’s what we do.
Martin: And, you mentioned your website. What is that website address?
Richard: It is wright20.com. So, my name W–R–I–G–H–T 2–0 .com.
Martin: Okay, and I want to talk a little bit about your company in a minute, here, but let’s just talk, quickly, about the contemporary market, because I know you’re really, heavily involved in that, and are you, basically, forming those markets? You talked a little bit about that, earlier.
Richard: In some ways yes. I don’t like to say that I’m forming the markets, so it’s hard to know where that line begins and ends. I mean, we’re trying to bring fresh things to the market. If the market responds we’ll do more of it. It goes both ways. I think of it more as exploring the world of design than trying to, per se, build a market. Building a market is a multi–pronged process, so it’s not controlled by anyone: a dealer, an auction house, the press. All those things the collectors – all those things come together: museums, it’s all part of a dialog, but I think that we’re all watching each other and looking at what is new and different and how can we put that out there and broaden the story that we’re telling.
Martin: Do you go to Europe and places like that looking at different contemporary designs?
Richard: Sure, it’s – I just came back from Germany and Sweden. I will point out contemporary is – can be a little bit of a fuzzy category, as well, depending what date you want to begin the contemporary movement. Right now we’re doing less with brand-new, absolutely contemporary pieces. We’ve commissioned pieces in the past. We had a contemporary design program. It’s been a very challenging part of the market, so we’re, honestly, doing less of that, but we still do a lot of things that were made in the last 20 years. That’s, by many definitions, contemporary, as well. I’m very interested in the curatorial reevaluation of very recent periods. We’re doing a lot, right now, with post-modern design, which is 80s, trying to suss out what is the historical important pieces from the 90s and the turn of this 21st century – something that really interests me. It’s hard work, and it’s not always clear, so, in that sense, I do travel. I’ve been to the Milan furniture fare a couple of times. I, certainly, keep my eye on museums and have watched the shows and have conversations with the curators to understand what’s the best design being produced, today. I see, more and more, the auction house venue is, really, best suited to secondary market. So, when do things enter the secondary market? And I’ve – stepping back from the primary market, myself.
Martin: Talking a little bit about your company, one thing I noticed, oh, of a number of years ago, when I first came across your website, is your beautiful photography and I bet that plays a part in the success of your company.
Richard: Oh, absolutely. Our company – the early success of our company was largely built around our print catalogs and photography was a huge component of that, of course. We maintain a very high level of design. We sell design, so graphic design has always been a huge part of our brand. In the very first auction years I art directed every single photograph. If we go – if you were to ever see my first catalog – there was little – I tried to prop things with little starfishes and different, little touches, and I shot things out in location, very early on. We shot on our traditional photo sweep. We shot in interiors. We shot outside. We did a whole host of art–directed shots. We’ve done innumerable different styles. We’ve also done an incredible amount of investment to maintain the quality of our photographs and it’s been such a learning curve, for me, to collaborate with great photographers, to try to communicate my visual interpretation of the objects, which I think that I have the most information on, and, then, just watching the world – the photographic world change. We opened in 2000. We shot film in Polaroids and now, of course, everything is digital and the amount of post–production time spent on photographs is amazing. We had no post–production, originally, of course, on film, or very little. Now, every single – every single shot is outlined, color–corrected, photoshop work is done, so we have an incredible commitment to the visual quality of our photographs. We have – we don’t know – I don’t even know the count – I mean, we take multiple shots of every piece, so we have a image archive of 50, 60, 70 thousand images, at this point, and it’s something I’m really proud of and I said the print catalog still continues to be one of our signatures, as our strong graphic style is a signature, but I’m, more and more, excited about developing our website and we’ve already – are doing things on the web that no other auction house is doing and we’re going to continue to try to build more into that, because there’s so much that the web can do to be able to allow you to take the deep dive to have, just, unlimiting content about some of these rare, historical pieces that we’re handling, and to keep that archive up there, forever, is just – and it’s free. I’m really proud of doing that, doing that in a visually exciting way, and putting that out there to share.
Martin: Now, when you’re speaking of what you’re doing with your website, is it just what you just mentioned, or are you doing some other things, as well?
Richard: We’re doing some other things. I mean, this fall we’ll be launching what we are calling additional content and we’re trying to work in a very visual way. Right now, if you were to preview one of our auctions, the new auctions – this doesn’t work for the old ones, but the ones from the spring, you’ll see that the objects are presented in a full–bleed window – a very visual window that has no border on it, and soon the information will – I use the metaphor of the deep dive. You’ll be able to, if you’re interested in that item, scroll down and the more you scroll down the deeper you will get into the history of the item. If we have information to share, we’ll tell you where the item came from, its provenance. We’ll try to show you how it’s signed. We’ll link in images of all the labels and all the marks. We’ll send you to links for biographies on the artist. We’ll be able to show you past sales results for similar items, those sort of things. We’ll try to put in images of advertising, period photos, where it’s documented in the literature, visually, showing you that – really trying to build that in for nearly every item. I have two full–time researchers, now. I have two photographers. I have two graphic designers. I have a full–time photo retoucher, a full time web person. It’s an investment, but I feel excited about creating that experience for the user. I hope that there’s a good business sense, on the other end of it, but I got to tell you it’s really driven by the passion of can we really document fully all these items that go through our hands. That’s a great gift.
Martin: Wow! That’s wonderful, so, your website is an amazing resource for anyone that’s listening to this to understand, exactly, this whole 20th and 21st century in the decorative arts. That’s wonderful! That’s great and just one more question. Can you tell the listener audience how many auctions you run a year and the separate categories?
Richard: Sure. We have a, somewhat, flexible schedule. We’re, right now, generally, doing 9 to 10 auctions a year. Each season is forms – the spring and the fall season – each one is anchored by the important design sale. That comes in June and December of every year. That’s where we, sort of, save up the most expensive and, sort of, heavyweight pieces. We, sort of, define that as $10,000.00 and above. Each season we do a mid–season sale, which we call the modern design sale, that’s a mixture of some expensive items, but a lot more of the accessible material and we evolve different themes for the mid–season sale, and we do a lot of our American design in the mid–season, so that occurs every March and October. We are, now, doing two Scandinavian design auctions. We’re the only auction house in America to do a dedicated Scandinavian design sale in America. We do one in May and November, then we do a mix of fine art and decorative art once a season. We call that living contemporary, ’cause we – we’re out there, we get offered some really great art, not so much that we can do – that we do – that we can do a stand–alone fine art program, so we, sort of, braid the two together and we do more of a decorative look to the furniture and we mix it with artwork that we’ve sourced. So, we have one of those in September. We do – so we’ll do April and September for that. We do, once a year our – we just had one – our beloved mass modern sale, which is our no-reserve in–house, I do say. I call it our junk sale, but it is our – it’s really our accessible sale, where we’ll take – we sold, boy, we sold a bunch of great stuff for 50 and 100 and 200 dollars. I like doing that sale because it brings in new collectors, local audience loves it, and I always want to point to the fact that while I talk a lot about the expensive material there’s still some great values in this field and there’s great values in the vintage world in general and it’s just – it’s a great jumping–in point for people, and then finally we’re always looking for the special project auction. My real passion is to be able to green–light a project that I want to do. Do it very quickly. This spring we were offered a single–owner collection of Italian glass, so we did a beautiful stand–alone catalog and presented 150 pieces of Italian glass. In December we have a single–owner collection of Italian design. I went over to Milan, through a dealer helped win a consignment. It’s about a million dollars worth of items from one collector in Milan. He felt the best market was here in America. We beat out some other auction houses and we’ll present that as a, again, as a separate catalog in December. We’ve done stand–alone auctions of Bertolla, single–owner sales, we did circa 70, we do all kinds of different ideas, so we always have a – we want to always have the flexibility in our schedule to do something like that.
Martin: Annie, who works with you, contacted me and it was a pleasure to talk to her and I’m really happy that she said you’d be willing to come back on, again.
Richard: Yeah, well, thank you. It’s really – it’s been fun.
Martin: All right, so this is Martin Willis with Richard Wright and we’re signing off.