Introduction

It is an open secret in the art and antiques business that modern design and decorative arts are incredibly hot right now. Entire businesses, such as Knoll and Herman Miller, are devoted to reproducing Modernist pieces from the previous century, and it is big business. From furniture to glass to lighting fixtures, the modern aesthetic is what sells, with great objects selling for astronomical prices. What is more, there are no signs of the modern market slowing down as a new generation of collectors discovers the simple beauty and functionality of modernist pieces.

Milo Baughman Lounge Chair. Thayer Coggin. American, mid 20th century.

What is “Modernism”?

The term “modern” has a specific technical meaning, usually referring to the period from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. In terms of modern design and decorative arts, the time period is clearer, from around the 1920s to the 1970s. “Midcentury Modern” is another name for this design aesthetic, as much of these ideas reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the mid 20th century. Modernism rejected much of the aesthetic ideas of earlier styles, especially regarding the idea of “decoration”. Unnecessary decorations were viewed as distracting from the inner beauty of the objects themselves. Why add ornate finials and engraving on a chair, when the sleek lines and comfortable padding of the chair are attractive and enticing on their own? In the famous adage from that time, Form follows Function.

Tapio Wirkkala "Kantarelli" vase. Iittala. Finnish, mid 20th century.

The Modern Aesthetic

Modernist design focuses on the overall form and the materials they are made out of. The materials are celebrated rather than hidden behind paint or unnecessary decoration. Think chrome steel, polished to a mirror shine, and full grain leather. The supports are not hidden, but shown and emphasized as fundamental aspects of the pieces themselves. Newer materials like steel and glass are also elevated and used to great effect.

George Nelson Furniture. Herman Miller. American, ca. mid 20th century.

Modernist Furniture

Perhaps the most popular and evocative pieces of Modern design is Modernist furniture. From chairs to tables and dressers to couches, modern design touched all pieces of furniture. The focus on materials and simplified design makes most modern furniture the perfect fit for any space. In addition, most designers and architects of the Modern period designed furniture to complement the spaces they were designing. For instance, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, perhaps the two most famous and influential architects of the 20th century, are still renowned for their furniture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair and Le Corbusier’s Chaise Longue (LC/4) (designed alongside his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand). In terms of sheer production and popularity, however, no designer is as lastingly popular and influential as Charles and Ray Eames. This husband and wife design team was fundamental in making modern furniture accessible in the United States. Their designs fill homes and office buildings from coast to coast, much of it designed for Herman Miller.

Pair of Eames Molded Plastic Chairs. Herman Miller. American, 10/23/1957.

Eames Chairs

Nest Egg Auctions has sold a number of pieces of Eames furniture, including some of their molded plastic chairs. These chairs were designed to be comfortable and fit the human body, as well as taking advantage of the new technology of molded plastics. These chairs, both in their stationary and rocker forms, are one of the most lasting designs of Charles and Ray Eames. Their lounge chair, with molded plywood and leather, is another of their popular designs. Comfort comes first in an Eames Lounge chair, with its matching ottoman. Both the molded plastic and lounge chairs are still produced today by Herman Miller, but the most sought after are the midcentury originals.

Eames Molded Plastic Rocking Chair. Herman Miller. American, ca. 1950s.
Eames style Lounge Chair. Bethlehem Furniture. American, 20th century.

Modernist Lighting

Lamps are where modernist design truly shines. With the advent of electricity and its widespread usage in the modern house, electric lights are almost a symbol of technology’s advance in the 20th century. Thus, it should come as no surprise that lamps are among the most sought after pieces of modern design. Examples, like this Laurel Lamp Company Mushroom lamp, show how design really changed in the mid 20th century. Rather than a traditionally shaped lampshade, this lamp has an ovular globe resting on a tapered red painted metal base. The light emanates perfectly from this lamp, filling the space with a soft, warm glow. It is a simple design, and one that allows for the most light to shine from the piece. Yet, it is executed so well and beautifully that it would make a space that much more alluring. Imagine this beautiful lamp on a modern wood side table, next to an Eames lounge chair as Sinatra croons on vinyl in the background. Perfect.

Curry Mushroom Lamp. Laurel Lamp Company. American, mid 20th century.

Modern Arts & Decorative Arts

While Modernism officially was against unnecessary decoration and ornamentation, this does not mean that decor did not exist. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Modernist artists and artisans focused on the formal properties of objects, such as line, shape, form, material, color, and play of light. In addition, with advancements in transportation, fine decorative objects from around the world became more widely available. Thus, artists like the Seguso family of glass artists in Murano, Italy could make their work available to the world. In a Seguso sculpture, the clarity of glass and the simplicity of form come together in artworks of great appeal that demonstrate the possibilities of glass.

Livio Seguso, "Cranes". Glass. 1970.

Beyond artwork, decorative arts like tea sets and serving trays had toned-down decorative elements, and utilized new materials like Formica to make them thoroughly modern. Among the most popular of modern decorative arts are vintage Pyrex bowls and trays. Full matching sets of rare patterns, and single pieces of rare patterns, can fetch hundreds of dollars. Elegance of design with new and classic materials, celebrated for their natural beauty, make these pieces incredibly alluring and fascinating to behold. What is more, they say a great deal about the ideas that made them, ideas that are still important today.

American silverplate tea set and Sheffield Silver Company Formica serving trays. American, mid 20th century.

Selling Modern Design and Decorative Arts at Nest Egg Auctions

Nest Egg Auctions is the premier place to buy and sell modern design and decorative arts in Connecticut and New England. We have decades of experience with modernist pieces, as well as an abiding appreciation for them. We also have a worldwide customer base, regularly working with bidders from Europe, Asia, and Australia. So, if you have a piece you want to sell, or if you are looking for that perfect piece for your home, look no further than us here at Nest Egg Auctions!

Selling Modern Design at Nest Egg Auctions

Have a Modern design pieces that you'd like to sell? Nest Egg Auctions would love to sell them for you for the highest prices!
Isamu Noguchi Cyclone Table. Knoll. American, mid 20th century.