Everything but the kitsch sink

From the lavish excess of Sparkle More's home to Arne Jacobsen's understated designs, objects from the Fifties are now regarded as `antiques'. Madeleine Marsh reports
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The Independent Culture
FROM her pointy bra to her fluffy mules, Sparkle More is Fifties glamour personified. Her name is borrowed from an American starlet of the 1950s, her shop in Camden Market, north London, sells 1950s clothes and accessories, she runs two 1950s nightclubs, while her flat brings a twinkle of period style to Stoke Newington. Sparkle herself is a lady of Jayne Mansfield proportions, enhanced by the original Fifties underwear - including waist-whittling corsetry and candy-coloured nylon petticoats - that she wears with her period dresses.

"Fifties women weren't that hourglass shape naturally," she insists, "and the clothes don't look right without the proper garments underneath them." Sparkle both collects and sells this lingerie, most of which is purchased by male customers. "British men buy nylon stockings by the bushel," she observes, sweeping back her long bottle-blonde hair.

Born in New York and raised on a diet of B-movies, rock and roll, and exuberant chainstore consumerism, Sparkle insists that collecting the 1950s is all about fun and glamour. Her current favourite item is Miss Martini, a voluptuous electronic plastic doll with a removable gold lame bikini. Press a glass into Miss Martini's outstretched arms and she shakes both the cocktail and her ample bust. Miss Martini takes pride of place in Sparkle's living room, gracing a wicker and bamboo bar complete with mirror and lights, which contains her collection of Fifties glasses, decorated with rock and roll motifs, and pin-up girls. "It was a very sexy period," explains Sparkle with a throaty chuckle, getting up to show off her bedroom, where a pink Jayne Mansfield-shaped hot water bottle lies on the leopardskin bed.

The bedroom houses Sparkle's vast collection of Fifties clothes: beaded velvet skirts, extravagantly printed cotton dresses, beautifully tailored period jackets; an Imelda Marcos-sized collection of period shoes, and more handbags than the Queen, though it's unlikely that Her Majesty would be seen with Sparkle's prize handbag: a white leather creation from Paris, in the shape of fanned out playing cards.

Certain Fifties themes predominate throughout her north London flat: playing cards, pin-up girls, hearts (heart-shaped vanity cases, mirrors and tables), cowboy motifs, Elvis Presley paraphernalia, and leopardskin. "I could do everything in leopardskin if I wanted to," she says proudly, displaying a range of spotted objects, from the carrying case of her portable record player (one of the first ever produced) to her laundry bag. "The great thing about the 1950s was the way extraordinary images were used for the most ordinary objects."

While much of Sparkle's collection comes from specialist dealers in both Britain and the USA, some of her laminated furniture was rescued from ships, and many of her ornaments were bought from local charity shops. Above the kitchen sink sits her large collection of pottery cats with elongated necks, archetypal examples of Fifties kitsch, costing little more than a couple of pounds apiece. "Every time I do the dishes they make me smile," Sparkle says. "What I like best about the 1950s is the humour."

For Dr Neil Bingham, shaven-headed assistant curator of the drawings collection at the Royal Institute of British Architects, collecting the 1950s is a far more serious and academic affair. His elegant south-east London home contains classic examples of furniture and decorative arts by the big-name designers of the period: chairs by the great Danish furniture maker Arne Jacobsen, textiles with amoeboid and abstract patterns from Heals, a streamlined convertible sofa by Robin Day, who designed the seating for the Royal Festival Hall, a coffee table with inset tiles by Eduardo Paolozzi.

"My collection is not about kitsch and has nothing to do with nostalgia," he says firmly. "It's about finding the best in design. I want top quality in everything - after all you only live once."

High standards do not necessarily mean high prices. The kitchen contains his collection of Midwinter dinner plates, with fabulous modernist designs by Jessie Tait, Terence Conran and Hugh Casson, most of which cost between pounds 5 and pounds 15 each and came from flea markets. Like everything he owns, this crockery is in daily use. "I don't think you should be precious about things," Bingham says, putting a Whigfield tape into the stereo housed in his Fifties "conference room cabinet" designed by the architect Cadbury- Brown for the Time-Life Building in Bond Street.

Bingham spends his professional life researching the great architects and designers of the 18th and 19th centuries; in his leisure time he collects archival material about the architects and designers who created his own collection, applying the same scholarship he would give to a monograph on Robert Adam or William Burges. "Even if I was a millionaire and could afford to collect the best 18th century furniture, I would still be buying 1950s," he says. "Materials and methods might change over the years but good design is timeless."

Bingham is not alone in his 20th-century passion. Fifties material is increasingly being granted "antique" status by the major auction houses, where plastic chairs now appear alongside mahogany commodes: Bonhams is holding three sales a year devoted to 20th-century design and this April, Sotheby's and Christie's South Kensington are launching their first auctions of post-1930s furniture and decorative arts.

It is the designer classics, rather than the kitsch that are attracting the auction houses: glass from Italy with its bright colours and organic shapes, modernist textiles by leading British designers such as David Whitehead, and Robin and Lucienne Day, furniture by the trail-blazing American, European and Scandinavian designers, including Carlo Mollino, Ernest Race, Charles Eames, Verner Panton and Fin Juhl. "Designers such as these are the 20-century equivalent of Adam and Chippendale," claims Bonham's auctioneer Alexander Payne. "A lot of our pieces are going to museums, and collectors are also buying as an investment. We haven't hit the millenium yet, and when we do values are certainly going to rise."

According to Tommy Roberts, who deals in post-war furniture, prices of the best Fifties furniture have doubled in the past year and good pieces are becoming increasingly hard to find. "You have to remember that only a small amount of seriously good stuff was produced in the first place," he stresses. "People have this mythical idea that in the Fifties everyone was driving American cars and living in houses with leopardskin wallpaper and progressive furniture, but it wasn't like that. These things were made for a very limited, discriminating market and were expensive at the time."

Christie's expert Simon Andrews agrees: "You really have to hunt the good pieces out. Until recently the period has been comparatively unappreciated. Much material has simply been junked and, perhaps surprisingly, there is still a lot we don't know about many of the designers." Christie's South Kensington are hoping to attract a new generation of collectors with their first 20th-century sale, younger ones as opposed to the middle- aged who patronise auctions of Victorian furniture.

Simon Alderson has dealt in the period for several years; his clients range from the original designers and architects themselves, buying back creations from their youth, to today's young collectors, raised on style articles in ID magazine and The Face. "Post-war furniture tends to be bought by people who understand and appreciate design and technology. They want something more interesting and enduring than a traditional three- piece suite."

At Alderson's 20th Century Design shop in Alfie's Antique Market, central London, you could spend around pounds 1,000 on a Marcus Zanuso lady chair, or a wooden lounge chair by Charles Eames, while at Bonhams this January, an Italian coloured glass vase, designed circa 1955 by Ansulo Fuga, fetched a hammer price of pounds 2,600.

It is these more serious designer pieces that will become the fine antiques of the 21st century, and are likely to prove the best investment. But there is still plenty of fun to be had and many collectables to be found for more affordable prices. Alfie's dealer, John Rastall, sells Fifties ceramics for less than pounds 10; on Saturdays, Design Goes Pop in Manchester is packed with students and young collectors buying Fifties clothes and atomic bobble-ended coat racks to hang them on; prices start at less than a fiver. The cheaper end of trendy markets such as Camden and Portobello are filled with stalls offering Fifties collectables at the low prices: circular skirts for around pounds 10, Homemaker plates and cheerfully patterned curtains for a few pounds or less. Ben Williams, 24, a porter at Bonham's, recently picked up a pair of Lucienne Day curtains for 30p from a local street market. "On my wages I couldn't afford to buy at Bonham's," he says. "I go to junk shops, local fetes, anywhere where people don't know what they are selling - if they do know, I can't afford it."

Junk shops across the land sell brightly coloured formica kitchen tables and everyday Fifties furniture at secondhand prices ("If you can't afford the expensive stuff, go for the G Plan," advises dealer Tommy Roberts, "I think it's a really good bet.") Because it is still being thrown away by the people who bought it at the time, Fifties material ends up at car boot sales and charity shops.

Admittedly, many items might not be in the best possible taste, and not everybody would want a black pottery model of a stretched sausage dog or a tape measure-holder in the form of a plastic crinoline lady. But even at their cheapest, Fifties collectables can be both fun and useful. At my local Oxfam, I picked up a set of abstract-decorated cocktail glasses for 50p. They won't be worth a fortune by the year 2000, but they will certainly provide a jolly receptacle for toasting the millenium. !

EVENTS

"The Fifties: You've Never Had It So Good?" - a season of music, art, literature, dance and theatre - runs from March to May at the Royal Festival Hall, London; Birmingham; Cardiff; and on Radio 3. It will include a national celebration of Fifties arts, such as the "Symbols for 51" Festival of Britain exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall (until 21 April) and over 100 events in Birmingham - design lectures, exhibitions and Back to the Fifties Day in Chamberlain Square and Victoria Square on 6 April, with period cars, live jiving, and costume competitions. Further details: 0121 236 2992.

BOOKS

Mid-Century Modern - Furniture of the 1950s, by Cara Greenberg (Thames and Hudson, pounds 15.95). The New Look - Design in the Fifties, by Lesley Jackson (Thames and Hudson, pounds 14.95).

DEALERS

For furniture, decorative art and housewares from the Fifties, try Tom Tom, 42 New Compton Street, London WC2 (0171 240 7909). American furniture and decorative arts are available from Deco Inspired, 67 Monmouth Street, London WC2 (0171 240 5719). Also try 20th Century Design at Alfie's Antique Market, 13-25 Church Street, London NW8 and Unit 2, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 (0171 923 3189). Other period specialists are: John Rastall, Fifties Ceramics and Decorative Arts, at Alfie's Antique Market, address above (0171 723 0449); Flying Duck Enterprises, 320-322 Creek Road, Greenwich, London SE10 (0181 858 1964); Design Goes Pop, 34-36 Oldham Street, Manchester (0161 237 9688); The Ginnel Gallery, 18- 22 Lloyd Street, Manchester (0161 833 9037); Atomic, 34b Heathcote Street, Nottingham (0115 941 5330).

CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES

Sparkle at the Stables, Long Stables, Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 (Saturday and Sunday); Steinberg and Tolkein, Vintage and Designer Clothing 1900-1960, 193 Kings Road, London SW3 (0171 376 3660); Sandy Stagg, 282 Portobello Road, London W10 (Friday and Saturday; 0181 964 4380); Orsini Gallery, 284 Portobello Road London W10 (Friday and Saturday; 0181 993 4162).

AUCTIONS

Bonham's 20th-Century Design Sale, 1 June, Montpelier Street, Knightsbridge, London SW7 (0171 393 3900). Sotheby's Post 1930s Furniture Sale, 1 April 1996, 34-35 New Bond Street W1 (0171 493 8080). Christie's South Kensington, Modern Design Sale, 13 April, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (0171 581 7611).

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