Design Legends

Simon Andrews on the Evolution of the 20th-Century Design Market

Daniella Ohad

Design doyenne Daniella Ohad shares insights into collecting design drawn from her conversations with the world’s premiere design experts

Currently offered as an online course through AIA New York, Collecting Design: The Legends invites architects, interior designers, design lovers, and art collectors to explore the fascinating world of collectible design through one-on-one conversations between Daniella Ohad and leading field experts. For Design Miami, Ohad recaps each weekly program, sharing rare insights into how to enjoy and “read” objects while cultivating a critical eye and elevated discernment.

Simon Andrews, independent expert, consultant, and founder of Andrews Art Advisory. Photo courtesy of Simon Andrews

According to collector-designer Michael Boyd: “Simon Andrews is the original trailblazer of vintage modern design—the first to recognize and showcase furniture design by the masters of 20th-century architecture. He loves high and low art, and he is equally comfortable in the most erudite auction house settings and the least sophisticated flea markets and junk stores. His South Kensington sales and catalogs are legendary—a whole education in themselves. We pored over his images and were inspired with every new offering. When Philippe Garner, grandfather of us all, and Simon were working together at Christie's, there was no better one-two punch in the field of vintage modernist design. We built our collection under Simon’s tutelage. My wife Gabrielle and I have treasured the tours of Paris, Prague, and Amsterdam led by Simon and his equally accomplished wife Melanie.”

For this week’s Collecting Design: The Legends program, I hosted Simon Andrews, a star player in the evolution of the design market over the last 20 years. Our conversation highlighted and celebrated defining moments in collectible design’s short history. This subset of the art market has become a global barometer for trend forecasting and high-brow interior design culture, inspiring a proliferation of scholarly analysis, art fairs, museum exhibitions, and publications. Andrews has been a leading force in making it all happen.

Unique Plywood Sculpture by Charles & Ray Eames, 1943. Sold at Christie's in 1999 for $365,500. Photo © Christie's

Andrews opened our talk at the beginning of the collectible design story, at the moment that he and many others consider to be the turning point. It was November 27, 1999, a date that not only marked the close of the last century but also the onset of a new international appreciation for the design objects that were produced from the postwar era onward. The groundbreaking event was a sale by Christie’s East, which turned out to be the key launching pad for the market for modernist masterpieces. Rare, iconic designs by the likes of Isamu Noguchi, Charlotte Perriand, and the Eameses, to name a few, were offered in this sale. Now, traditional antiques no longer lead the market.

Fauteuil aux Dragons by Eileen Gray, c.1917-1919. From the Collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Sold at Christie's Paris in 2009 for €21,905,000. Photo © Christies

Andrews, who has recently founded his own advisory company, Andrews Art Advisory, went on to tell us about three single-owner collections that further propelled the market forward and demonstrated how the collector has come to define the collection and vice versa. The first, the Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé Collection, was auctioned in 2009 by Christie’s, just four months after the couturier’s death. Exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris, the sale honored one of the greatest art collections of all time, featuring pieces of magnificent provenance, radical expression, and the highest quality, reflective of the eclectic tastes of its seminal collectors.

As Saint Laurent and Bergé tended to make acquisitions through private sales, most of the objects in the collection had not been seen by the public in decades—unique and super rare pieces by Gustave Miklos and Jean Michel Frank, for instance. Eileen Gray’s Fauteuil aux Dragons, created circa 1917-1919 for the Parisian apartment of fashion designer Suzanne Talbot, fetched €21,905,000, the highest price ever paid in a public auction for a piece of furniture. The record value, according to Andrews, resulted from the object’s incredible quality, historical significance, and daring design expression, together with its exceptional provenance.

Big Sur Sofa by Peter Shire for Memphis, 1986. From the Collection of David Bowie. Sold at Sotheby's London in 2016 for £77,500. Photo © Sotheby's

Collectors who have the eye and the courage to identify what others dismiss are the ones who have created the best collections; they act as preservationists of outstanding human creativity. David Bowie was one such collector. When the personal collection of the English rockstar burst onto the market in 2016, it became clear that his flamboyant taste and hallmark commitment to the avant-garde informed his love for the radical design of Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis Group.

Known for its theatrical, exotic, postmodernist look, Memphis developed a disruptive aesthetic of unabashed artifice, crafted from a shocking mix of mundane and fine materials. Bowie understood the art of confrontation and respected this in Memphis design; the products of Memphis were not dissimilar to the eccentric jumpsuits and bodysuits that Bowie wore onstage over the years. The majority of Bowie’s collection was acquired by the Modernism Museum Mount Dora, the largest Memphis holding of any American museum today.

Left: Side Chair from the White Bedroom by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, c. 1904. Sold at Sotheby's in 2017 for $576,500. Photo © Sotheby's. Right: Armchair by Gerrit Rietveld, designed 1925, produced c. 1962-1964. Sold at Christie's in 2019 for £25,000. Photo © Christie's

Andrews’s eyes brightened when we began to discuss the earliest manifestations of modernist design—the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Josef Hoffmann, and Gerrit Rietveld—where “everything started,” in Andrews’s words. A metal teapot designed by British designer Christopher Dresser and produced by James Dixon & Sons in Sheffield in 1879 is the ultimate example of the wonderful radicality of modernist design, an approach without any precedent. Inspired by Japanese culture, Dresser is considered a key modernist pioneer, active long before the official birth of the modern movement.

This rare teapot with its idiosyncratic rectangular handle—one of only three currently known to exist today—fetched $399,000 when it was offered at Christie’s New York in 2019. The ebonized wood and electroplated metal demonstrate the designer's preference for affordable materials and industrial methods of production, precious in its brilliant concept rather than in its physical manifestation. It is this type of artistic thinking that engendered the masterpieces of 20th-century design that followed. As Le Corbusier said: “poor materials, rich design.”

Rare Teapot by Christopher Dresser, c. 1879. Sold at Christie's New York in 2019 for $399,000. Photo © Christie's

Andrews offered passionate, fascinating insights into the allure of modern design and made clear that identifying greatness is the key to accumulating a great collection. “What can I say about Simon Andrews that you don’t already know?” gallerist Patrick Parrish once told me. “One thing would be that he is as much an aficionado of mid-century fashion as he is of 20th-century design objects. That is really saying something, because he is truly one of the great experts in all things design, especially when it comes to the masters, such as Carlo Mollino and Jean Prouvé.” I couldn't agree more and can’t wait to see what Andrews does next in latest endeavor. ◆


The public is invited to enroll in Collecting Design: The Legends (Spring 2021) here. Sponsored by AIA New York, these weekly virtual classes run through April 20, 2021.