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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

£15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future