Furnish yourself with a future antique

Buy stylish pieces you love and they could become classics in years to come
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The Independent Online

When an early Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair sold at Christie's for £122,500 in 1997, it moved modern furniture collecting into a different league - that of prime investment in much the same sort of category as fine antiques or art. For interiors, too, there has been a swing away from the ornate towards simpler, clean-lined modern pieces. So, with so much good modern furniture on the market, is there an opportunity to buy contemporary classics that will both enhance your home now and fund your retirement in the future?

When an early Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair sold at Christie's for £122,500 in 1997, it moved modern furniture collecting into a different league - that of prime investment in much the same sort of category as fine antiques or art. For interiors, too, there has been a swing away from the ornate towards simpler, clean-lined modern pieces. So, with so much good modern furniture on the market, is there an opportunity to buy contemporary classics that will both enhance your home now and fund your retirement in the future?

In theory, yes, but in practice picking the right modern investment piece is even more hazardous than was predicting the winner of Euro 2004. You only have to look at any local auction house to see that the vast bulk of pieces from the late 19th century and early 20th century are worth little more than a piece of furniture in the sale at Argos. How then does one spot an antique of the future? What is a design classic? Should you just aim for a good solid piece of furniture that'll give long service and still be worth something when you come to sell? Or should you go for something you love with the wow factor?

It may seem obvious but, as with all forms of collecting, your best bet is to look for a name. Modern British furniture does not always have the cachet of its antique counterparts but among the contemporary UK luminaries are Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton, Ron Arad and, of course, Terence Conran. Nor is it necessarily ruinously expensive. Dixon's jack light retails for £165, his mirror ball lamp for £250 and his famous S-chairs start at around £850. They can be complemented with a Jasper Morrison table at £1,163, with some of his plastic air chairs thrown in at £50 a go. Ultimately, though it is not price but good design and a certainly originality that are the keys in this field.

Conran says that "good design is 98 per cent common sense, but what makes it fascinating is the other two per cent: what some call aesthetics or the magic ingredient. You can't quantify this; you can only recognise it. When the magic ingredient is present, the quality of life is improved".

Janice Blackburn, a freelance curator who set up the Contemporary Decorative Arts exhibitions for Sotheby's, agrees. She says buy what you can't resist. "In terms of investment it's what you love that is going to give you a better quality of life and what more can you ask? A classic sofa might be good for your back but it's not really going to lift your spirits. When you see the item that'll lift the spirits, you'll know."

Luckily for them, Janice and Sir Terence have enormously good, and exceptionally well-informed, taste. What they would veer towards naturally would quite often - coincidentally - be the antiques of the future. But what should the rest of us mere mortals do?

Polly Dickens, the creative director of the Conran Shop has the most resonant advice for spotting a classic: "Imagine you're moving," she says. "It's all the things you want to take with you. It's the items you can't live without and that will look good in any environment. There are wonderful pieces in the shops now."

A piece of furniture that is well made and is pleasing to the eye will inevitably have longevity and desirability. Look at the lines of the Barcelona chair and the Corbusier day bed - they work as well in today's interiors as in those for which they were designed 70 years ago.

Interior designer Rabih el Hage has spent a lifetime in pursuit of tomorrow's antiques and bases his search on three criteria: Originality, functionality and materials. "This last criterion will allow me to guess the way the piece will age. If it is a traditional material, say solid oak, one can imagine how the piece will look in 20 or 100 years. The way a piece ages influences its value and desirability. I'm tempted to choose new designs using old materials." He cites Mark Harvey, Johnny Swing and Christophe Côme, who all work on limited edition furniture, as his hot tips.

There is a huge problem though. If part of being a good investment is desirability, then presumably it helps to buy what others want now. But how do you know it will still be desirable in the future? There's no guarantee that even a piece of fine-looking furniture by a well-known designer, that will give fantastic service and look still better with age, will turn out to be a future headline-grabber. It's often the difficult to live with, look- at-me pieces that stand out from a sea of refined good taste 100 years or so down the line.

For Martin Waller, the chairman of Andrew Martin, it's the more unexpected things that will probably be the antiques of tomorrow. "It will be the most unlikely items that will become collectable as everyone will keep the special editions and collectors editions of things. With a Philippe Starck piece, everyone will keep it, whereas there might be some plastic thing in Ikea - albeit well designed - that is the one that everyone wants in 100 years time - mostly because it is so rare.

"It's the stuff everyone chucks out that becomes valuable. That's why all the horrible furniture of the Seventies is so valuable. In the Eighties, everyone chucked it out."

George Khachfe, MD of Poliform - the Italian furniture company - believes it's far more difficult to spot tomorrow's antiques now than ever before as there is such a quantity of very good material out there. All of which is encouraging for quality of life, but not great for the family heirloom speculation.

Mr Khachfe doubts that any design which goes into full-scale production today will ever make big bucks as there are simply too many of them. "What you need to find," he says "for it to be worth any money, is a piece from a designer before it went into production." Carlo Columbo is his hot tip for a choice Italian designer, but as he has had so much work commercially produced, the best pieces of his to invest in might well be, ironically, the proto-types deemed not commercial enough to go into production. In any case you might like some of his designs for Poliform. His revolving plastic strip chair has just been launched at Milan Furniture Fair (£700).

On the other hand, Mary Carroll, editor of the BBC's Homes & Antiques magazine believes it is possible to get future value from something that is widely available. "Condition affects the value of everything, so something like the Robin Day-designed Forum sofa, which is one of Habitat's biggest sellers at the moment (£1,200 to £1,500), shouldn't be ruled out as an antique of tomorrow. It is a design classic and if it well looked after, will be as desirable in the future as it obviously is now."

She would also recommend that while we're decorating our houses we should look at the vast quantity of rugs "which are like works of art in themselves" and original craft - "they will be the real collectables of tomorrow". Her other top tip is the named designer collections for companies such as Wedgwood, Waterford and Stuart Crystal.

Ultimately, though, buying modern furniture for investment is as uncertain as any investment. You have to know what you're doing. A classic piece bought for its beauty and longevity may or may not perform years down the line because there are too many of them around, but you will have it for many years, love it and use it. And if it's well made with pleasing lines and by a respected designer, you probably won't lose when you come to sell. You may even gain.

If there's one safe bet at the moment, ironically - and we've come full circle - it's Victorian or Georgian brown wood furniture. Perhaps we should all buy what we feel comfortable with. If it sells well a few years down the line, that's a bonus.

'Good furniture is like haute couture'

Annette Chaplin and her husband James, who married in 1977, have always lived in architect-designed houses and shopped for modern design classics.

Eleven years ago she turned this interest into a business and opened their first branch of Chaplins, focusing on modern furniture and design.

She believes good design can be likened to haute couture. "If you buy really good tailoring, it is going to last as long as you want it to. It's exactly the same with good furniture... it has to just be well-designed."

The collectable of tomorrow will also need to be well made, but they needn't take themselves too seriously.

For their home in Buckinghamshire, the Chaplins have had to buy pretty much from scratch because when they sold the last house the buyers wanted the contents too. Annette and James buy by gut instinct and their taste is decidedly modern. She has plumped for, among other things, a Mario Bellini dining table by Cassina - not only a design classic but sturdy enough to do yoga on.

One of her favourite pieces is a limited edition 40th anniversary version of the 1962 Arco lamp by Flos. It's the sort of thing that might do well later on as it is not only well-designed butalso rare because of its black marble base (the usual base is white marble) and it's signed by the designer, Achille Castiglioni. Finally, because Castiglioni died shortly after, there will be no more - always an advantage on the markets.

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