Design: Old tat or object of desire?

Don't look in the attic for treasure - your humble kitchen may contain its own design classics. By John Windsor
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The Independent Culture
I STOPPED serving my cats meals on a tatty Woolworth's plate when I opened Katherine Higgins's book Are You Rich? and read that it is worth pounds 12. The plate, one of the "Homemaker" set sold exclusively by Woolworth's from 1957 until well into the Sixties, may have been tat in the Seventies and Eighties - but today it has been transformed into a design icon.

Not only that, the range helped to turn into design icons some of the Fifties designs it depicts - Robin Day's reclining chair, for example, and Terence Conran's spindly-legged wicker plant-pot stand.

Higgins is best known as the antiques presenter for Sky News and has presented the BBC's Antiques Show, ITV's Schofield's Quest and the TLC/Sky Collectomania series. Are You Rich? is her first book. At first I sniffed at it. Another of those wishful "Treasures in Your Attic" pot-boilers, I thought, which send us up loft ladders on searches that yield, instead of Victorian rocking-horses worth pounds 1,000, dusty old rolls of flooring felt.

Higgins, however, ignores the attic and takes us through the kitchen, the living-room, the bedroom - where you are quite likely to find collectable design classics dating between the Fifties and the Nineties. These days, she says, some designs become collectable as soon as they leave the shop. The London design collective Jam's foam "Dino" table-cum-chair is still in production at pounds 828 retail and Higgins reckons it will hold its value. As for that Fifties Robin Day lounger, it could be worth pounds 1,500. And she puts a tag of pounds 350 on Conran's Fifties wicker plant-pot holder.

Higgins has benefited from from clued-up viewers reporting hefty prices for modern design at boot sales and auctions. She was born at the right time - the late Sixties. That means that she is less likely than old fogies to dismiss Woolworth's "Homemaker" plates as tat. To her, they are social history.

"After the austerity of the war", she says, "many young couples had little money but wanted to appear fashionable. They could not afford a Robin Day recliner from Heal's, but they could afford Woolworth's `Homemaker' crockery.

"Those were the days, remember, when you invited the boss home to dinner. That cheap, fashionable crockery, bought to impress him, should have as much social significance for collectors as late-18th-century Wedgwood creamware.

"You may claim `Homemaker' plates as tat, but when you get absorbed in the concepts behind the design, you start to admire it. There's nothing in my book that I don't like."

Even chunky brown Sixties Denby Arabesque ware? Surely even jumble sales are turning that away. But have you looked recently? It is suddenly scarcer, and selling for pounds 11 a plate to home-makers/ collectors who want to cultivate a Sixties look.

As collectors go, Higgins is of the advanced, American kind. Americans have started collecting historic electrical goods, such as Fifties Hoover steam irons and Braun kitchen mixers. They are also more alert than we are to the value of vintage electronic goods, such as computers. To them, industrial design means not just the shape of things but advances in technology.

On her study bookshelves Higgins displays a late-Fifties Pifco electric travel iron with the sales brochures that went with it. She would like to own an example of the world's first pocket calculator, the Sinclair Executive of 1972; it is worth pounds 100-pounds 150.

Collecting tip; some of our modern icon-spotting is being done for us by astute curators - note the objects in Higgins's book that have been selected by the Design Council for the Millennium or were displayed at the European Summit Meeting in London in 1997 or last year's Powerhouse :: UK exhibition in London. Meanwhile, I have confiscated my cats' "Homemaker" plate and put it in my antiques showcase. They are now eating off crockery bearing the logo of Commonwealth Railways, with its map of Australia. Until I come across a book on antipodean railway collectables, they are welcome to it.

An exhibition of valuable household items, curated by Katherine Higgins, is at Grays Antique Markets, South Molton Lane, London W1, from 5 May to 30 June (open 10am-6pm Monday-Friday). Enquiries 0171-629 7034. `Are you Rich?' by Katherine Higgins, is published by Chameleon, pounds 14.99