You're sitting pretty with retro chairs

Designs for living can bring cash as well as kudos, writes Fiona Sturges

WHEN it comes to attractive investments, modern furniture has an obvious advantage. After all, it is difficult to admire the elegance of a high-performance pension plan, and you can't sit down on British Gas shares.

The Nineties predilection for all things "retro" (particularly from the 1960s and 1970s) has boosted demand and value in modern design. But, while fashion plays a part in the market's success, its novelty value has dwindled in favour of a more serious and informed interest.

Buyers, say dealers, fall into the "young professional" bracket, predominantly under 40, looking for something with investment potential to fill their homes. And although there is a degree of speculation in any new art market, the creation of departments in top auction houses is testament to 20th- century design's staying power, as is continuing improvement in prices.

Bonhams first put modern design in the sale rooms in 1991, and realised pounds 61,000. On Wednesday, it is holding a sale that is estimated to realise pounds 190,000.

The sale focuses on the most innovative design from the latter part of the 20th century, with highlights including Ron Arad's Misfits, 1997, a group of sculptured red felt chairs, and Pierre Paulin's "Tongue Chair", from 1967. Sale prices range from pounds 150 to pounds 16,000, although most estimates are in the hundreds, making the sale affordable to younger buyers. Chairs by Tobias Scarpa are reasonably priced, around pounds 300, while an original 1950s mushroom-shaped Italian desk lamp costs pounds 150 to pounds 200.

The recent creation of Bonhams' Futures department - contemporary ceramics, design and visual arts - has sprung from the success of these sales. "I'd like to think we are supplying quality design that reflects the culture, quality and innovation of the 20th century... which [buyers will subsequently be able to] sell at a profit," claims Alex Payne, head of design at Bonhams. Christie's will hold its sixth modern design sale on 18 March.

But speculators should remember that design fashion is fickle. One year we are encouraged to clutter our living space, the next we have to banish all furniture. A bit of study is needed to make the right choice. Check how rare a piece is, how often one has come up for auction, and at what price pieces have sold. Premium value can be found in objects that are limited edition or unique prototypes.

Items made as recently as the mid-1980s are already commanding higher prices at auction, fetching three or four times the original selling price. Ron Arad's Tree Light, up for sale at Bonhams on Wednesday, was originally priced by Arad at pounds 350 in 1985, but is set to fetch between between pounds 800 to pounds 1,200.

As the demand for 20th century design grows, so books are rapidly being written on the subject. These are good for identifying what you are looking at and discovering which designers are important. Past results from old sales can be requested from sale rooms and clients can consult the resident experts about the scarcity of their chosen items. Once you have decided what price you are prepared to pay, stick to it.

One difficulty for amateur investors is the lack of an index measuring improvements in market value, although Bonhams is introducing a new 24- hour phone service that can access prices realised in sales. Phillips is the only auction house to offer a general survey of all its sales that includes highlights of the previous year and predictions for the next. Sadly, it does not deal in modern design.

As with true antiques, there are plenty of fakes about. Simon Alderson collects and deals in furniture from pre-war to the present day in his Twentieth Century Design gallery in Islington, London. He says: "The biggest problem is that a lot of old furniture is still being made, unlicensed and licensed. Manufacturers are reproducing old designs, many with the permission of the original designers or their estates, but several without."

But he remains optimistic about the value of modern design, insisting that: "Certain styles will go through peaks and troughs but people should not be disillusioned; that is just the infancy of the market. Over the past five years, prices have tripled. Certain designers will undoubtedly reach the peaks of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and William Morris. Look out for Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton, Alvar Aalto and George Nelson."

q Bonhams Design sale, 6pm, 25 February, Montpelier Street, London SW7, 0171-393 3900. Bonhams Voice Results Service, 0640 701070. Christie's Modern Design, 2pm, 18 March, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, 0171- 581 7611. Twentieth Century Design, Tuesday-Saturday 11am-7pm, 274 Upper Street, London N1, 0171-288 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee