SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
The Sixties are back, not least in the salerooms. Madeleine Marsh discovers that furniture and fashion which until recently would have raised a wry smile is now fetching high prices
Dealers and auction houses have been falling over themselves to snap up Sixties classics, not so easy from the decade that pioneered the throw- away aesthetics epitomised by the paper dress. This September alone, Bonham's punningly titled "High Art" auction, previously mentioned on these pages, is devoted to psychedelic posters while Christie's "Funky Fashion" sale includes clothes by Mary Quant, Courreges and Zandra Rhodes. London's Reel Poster Gallery is launching a book and a series of exhibitions focused on Sixties films, and Whitford Fine Art in St James is showing furniture by Gufram, the Italian company, founded in 1966, that made sofas shaped like giant scarlet lips and coat-stand modelled on cacti.
An increasing number of dealers are concentrating on the Sixties, and Grandaddy Cool of them all is Tommy Roberts. Roberts is unusual in this predominantly young field since he was actually there the first time round. "People come into the shop and say `I thought you were dead'," he admits somewhat ruefully, "but collectors buy from me because I've been through it and I know what's right and wrong."
Born in Deptford, Tommy Roberts became one of the in-crowd who made London swing and the "sarf" London accent fashionable. He opened his first shop, Kleptomania, in Carnaby Street in 1966. "We was hip people and didn't want to sell anything to anyone who wasn't cool," he says. "We stocked fabulous old clothes, military jackets, frilly shirts, Indian stuff, bells and beads. It was really hippy trippy and so dark that you couldn't see the clothes." Roberts blended into this heady atmosphere in a full-length black velvet kaftan and a pair of girl's silver boots from Sasha. "It was the first time that young people had their own fashions and didn't dress like cut-down versions of their parents," he remembers. "Mothers used to cry when they saw their long-haired sons and make them wear hairnets to the office."
Roberts moved to the King's Road and opened the celebrated Mr Freedom in 1969. His new boutique, patronised by everybody from the Rolling Stones to Picasso, introduced a harder edged, pop-inspired look, the antithesis of dreamy, hippy style: bright primary colours, skinny T-shirts, hot pants and "bummers": "We made trousers that exposed the bum long before today's designers," he says proudly. He also began to experiment with furniture: seats shaped like Liquorice Allsorts and jigsaw pieces, sideboards modelled on Dansette record players. Throughout his long career, Roberts' great gift has been to capture the mood of the decade. In the Eighties he founded Practical Styling, the designer home store that provided a generation of yuppies with brilliantly coloured dustbins and chrome-plated vacuum cleaners, and today he runs Tom Tom, selling classic post-war design and furniture that was fashionable in his youth.
In his "antique" shop you can find all the great Sixties favourites: from Globe chairs and blow-up furniture to Allen Jones' pneumatic prints. Prices range from under pounds 50 for smaller items (early Habitat clocks, plastic desk tidies) to four-figure sums for furniture by big designer names such as Verner Panton, Pierre Paulin and Olivier Mourgue. His clientele is predominantly under 40 - young professionals, media types and the odd Britpop star. Though most of them are too young to remember much about the Sixties - other than hiding behind the sofa to watch Dr Who - they tend to be extremely sophisticated collectors. "They know their subject and want the good names and the right stuff," says Roberts. "They're not going to spend pounds 1,500 on a chair unless they're also sitting on an investment."
When I met Simon Alderson he was lounging on a bright purple seat, created by French designer Pierre Paulin c1968, modelled on the shape of a tongue, and currently worth around pounds 850. Alderson, aged 30, both collects and deals in Sixties furniture and is perhaps typical of today's informed young enthusiasts, in that what first attracted him to the period was not just nostalgia for the glamour of the Chelsea Set but an academic interest in international modern design.
"I'd read about architects and designers when I was a student and I wanted to collect their work," he explains. "What I find exciting is the colours and shapes that were possible with new materials and technology. Even in my early twenties I was looking for serious pieces by the best names."
Ironically this is a very different attitude from the young aesthetic of home furnishing in the Sixties. "Nobody really knew about designer furniture or architects then; Cliff Richard was far more interesting," snorts Tommy Roberts. "Kids spent their money on clothes, make-up and records. Designer furniture was far too expensive for most of us."
The furniture sold by both Roberts and Alderson was expensive and exclusive at the time and remains so today. At Twentieth Century Design, Alderson's Islington gallery, you can buy an Olivier Mourgue Djinn Two Seater sofa (the furniture that was used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) for pounds 1,800, a white plastic sideboard by Raymond Loewy for pounds 750, and to set off the space-age effect, you might spend pounds 280 on a spherical, orange plastic television, modelled on an astronaut's helmet, and coming complete with a suspension chain for hanging from the ceiling.
The space race and Pop Art both had an important influence on Sixties design, and plastic was the perfect medium for creating furniture that looked both fun and futuristic. Some of it, however, was never intended to last into the future. "Condition can be a problem," admits Alderson. "Inflatable chairs, for example, tended to deflate, and though you can mend holes with a bicycle puncture repair kit, they don't look quite so groovy." Built-in obsolescence was part of the Sixties lifestyle; Alderson's favourite possession is a Sixties seat made from condensed paper by Bernard Hold-away which is still in immaculate condition. "It's incredibly rare," he enthuses. "People simply threw them away when they finished with them, like a paper cup."
It is partly this scarcity that makes Sixties design so desirable. Over the past five years prices have doubled and tripled and experts predict that they are set to rise still further. "Sixties pieces are attractive because in some ways they are more familiar to today's generation than Victorian and Georgian furniture," says Simon Andrews. His modern design sales have brought a host of platform-shod young trendies tripping through the doors of Christie's. "The Globe chair and other classic period designs have established themselves through the media; they are endlessly featured in magazines, you see them in James Bond films, The Prisoner and The Avengers. They have become part of our common culture, collectables for the TV generation."
As Andrews points out even the best Sixties furniture is still far cheaper than traditional antiques. "A fine piece by the right name can only be good investment," he says with total confidence, "and it can be a lot of fun to live with."
At home, many collectors mix Sixties furniture with works from other periods, some however go the whole way. Legal publisher Angie Smith lives on a Sixties London estate and from her living-room with its orange and brown-striped walls, plastic tables and hanging-basket chair, to her raspberry- coloured bathroom suite designed by Courreges, everything in her flat is an exuberant homage to the late Sixties/Seventies.
Angie herself is a vision of retro glamour - beehive hair-do, whitened face, panda-eye make-up, a figure like Twiggy's, and more often than not, dressed from head to suede-booted toe, in vintage Biba, her particular passion. "Everyone knows me as Biba Angie," she says happily. Previous nicknames have not been so welcome. At school she was known as Steptoe or Tobermory. "You remember, the Womble who collected the rubbish", because of her passion for combing dumps for everything from clay pipes to animal bones. "I brought in a dead squirrel for the nature table once - my teacher was furious."
Her father, an East London dustman, saved her all the best rubbish from his rounds and her pocket money went on clothes from charity shops. When she hit 14 in the Eighties Angie got into the Fifties. "All the other kids were trying to look like David Bowie and I wanted to be Judy Garland. I had all the original gear, the pencil skirts, the stilettos, but it wasn't completely satisfying. Fifties fashion centred on the bust; the Wonderbra hadn't been invented yet and I was as flat as an ironing board. So I began to go for little Sixties shift dresses, and that was the start of everything."
Today her clothes collection is worth a small fortune, and though everything in her flat has been styled with loving attention to period detail, it is in the overflowing wardrobes in her pink and purple bedroom that her heart truly lies. "I could stand here for hours and just go through the lot," she says dreamily. There are clothes by Ossie Clarke, Thea Porter, Mary Quant and above all Biba. The exotic and feminine fashions created by Barbara Hulanicki for her legendary Kensington emporium are today highly sought after, though when Angie began collecting in the Eighties, you could pick them up for virtually nothing. "Some shops would even give me things because they thought that flares were hideous and I was mad."
Angie's favourite outfit is a fake leopard-skin Biba trouser-suit with matching turban, purchased for pounds 20 in Camden. "An identical jacket, on its own, just sold for pounds 380 at auction," she says proudly. She also has high-necked, Edwardian- influenced dresses in plums and maroons, Twenties-style velvet opera coats, endless hats and accessories, and row upon row of slim-legged, size four boots - supple suede and slinky velvet - in mauves, browns, greens and blacks, the soft, bruised tones that made Biba famous. Today, these boots can fetch pounds 100 to pounds 200 a pair.
Biba dominates Angie's life. The flat is piled with literally thousands of Biba cosmetics in their distinctive Art Deco-style black and gold packaging (she now deals in vintage make-up), and her collection includes everything from shop-display fittings to tins from the food hall. Even her cat - a decorative but psychotic creature - is black with gold-coloured eyes and called Biba.
Angie has spent 12 years studying Biba. "I am a natural scholar," she says seriously and, like every specialist, she has her esoteric prize possessions. She is particularly proud of her Biba paper bags, but her most cherished piece of ephemera is an in-house, promotional Biba newspaper, published in 1973, and lovingly preserved in museum-standard, acid-free tissue paper. "Just let me read you this little quote from it before you go, " she insists, "it's so prescient: `Everything in Biba's kitchen department is guaranteed to be as camp as Aldershot. Nothing here will ever make the Design Centre but shrewd investors could buy now with an eye on Sotheby's in 1993'."
Or indeed with an eye on that and every other auction house in 1997. !
SALES AND SHOWS
'High Art': psychedelic posters of the 1960s. Tuesday 16 September, Bonhams Chelsea, 65-69 Lots Road, London SW10, 0171 393 3900.
`Futures Design': 20th Century Furniture. Saturday 20 September, Bonhams Knightsbridge, Montpelier Street, London SW7, 0171 393 3900.
Modern Design. Wednesday 12 November, Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, 0171 581 7611.
The Furniture of Gufram. 18 September to 3 October, Whitford Fine Art, 6 Duke Street, St James, London SW1, 0171 930 9332.
Film Posters of the Sixties. 23 September to 22 December, The Reel Poster Gallery, First Floor, 22 Great Marlborough Street, London W1, 0171 734 4303.
Tom Tom 42 New Compton Street, London WC2, 0171 240 7909.
Twentieth Century Design 274 Upper Street, London N1, 0171 288 1996.
Planet Bazaar 151 Drummond Street, London NW1, 0171 387 8326.
CO2 The Stables, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1, 0171 609 7597.
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