Last week, a small leather armchair was sold for £19m. Shattering world records, it was the most expensive piece of 20th century design ever to be auctioned.
The sinister-looking "dragon’s armchair", so called because of the ornate sculptures on its sweeping armrests, sold for a whopping six times the estimate. Why did it go for so much? Designed by Scottish-Irish Art Deco designer Eileen Gray, the 24-inch tall wooden and leather chair was formerly owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. But still, £19million? Even without the world sinking into recession, it seems utter madness.
Whatever it’s acclaimed design history and fashion credentials, many of us think Gray’s chair is utterly hideous to look at. Embellished with snakes and featuring an uncomfortable-looking low backrest, the chair is not for everyday use - or to everybody’s taste. At that price, will anyone dare ever sit on it? Does that matter? Art as furniture and vice versa has been bubbling under the surface and is now coming to boiling point. The rise of hip furniture manufacturer Established & Sons and design art "galleries" like Rabih Hage’s space in Chelsea heralds a new way of looking at furniture.
Am I missing the point wanting to sit down on Gray’s design classic? Collectors’ item or not, isn’t that what chairs are for? Personally, I’d rather curl up on the Eames leather lounge chair designed by equally hip design legends, Charles and Ray Eames, in 1956. Coveted by design aficionados, the chair achieves that rare combination of high design and comfort. As was Charles Eames’ vision, it has the "warm, receptive look of a well-used baseman’s mitt’". For a few thousand pounds, it’s cheap compared to Gray’s chair. And ultimately, it looks cosy to curl up in - unlike Gray’s "Dragon’s chair".
Not just garish-looking, the dragon’s chair, created between 1917 and 1919, is tatty for want of a better word. It used to be that tired-looking furniture and jeans with holes would be chucked out and replaced with sparkling new purchases. But the tide has turned. Today, "ready-distressed" jeans and well-worn leather armchairs are highly covetable, valuable items. They achieve "trendy" art status. At auction, wear and tear can actually add to a lot’s worth because of the assumed historical charm.
"It’s a fabulous price," Philippe Garner, Christie's international head of 20th Century Decorative Art and Design said of the £19million chair. "The sale was a homage to the great personalities, designers, collectors and patrons who so marked their era in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and to the pioneering vision of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge as collectors."
The vintage chair market is not exclusive to auction houses. That ready-loved look is popular on the high street; hotfoot to John Lewis for the Tetrad totness leather chair. Upholstered in 100 per cent natural hand antiqued water buffalo hide, this lovely leather number defines shabby chic. The superloop sprung back is encased in Mongolian horsehair for the ultimate in durable seating. Budge over grandpa, judging by the millions raised by Christie’s auction, vintage leather chairs are a suave choice.
Next month, Marc Newson’s iconic futuristic Lockheed lounge is going under the hammer at Phillips de Pury & Company’s London Design Sale. Like Gray’s "Dragon’s chair", it is a prized lot fuelling much excitement in the industry. It’s expected to change hands for £700,000 - not quite the millions of last week, but still a stupendous sum for a single chair. The colossal price tag is, in part because it appeared in Madonna’s award-winning 1993 pop smash Rain, but also because it’s an original Newson creation. Like Gray, Newson has achieved "surname only" status. Hand-crafted from fiberglass and riveted sheet aluminium, the Lockheed lounge is "one of the most significant contributions to the quantum leap that design vocabulary has taken in the last 20 years," according to Alexander Payne, worldwide director of Phillips de Pury.
High fashion, pop music and iconic design associations send the art collecting fraternity wild. The lure of famous names like Yves Saint Laurent, Eileen Gray, Madonna or Marc Newson creates a bidding frenzy beyond all comprehension. It seems that however uncomfortable and impractical, designer chairs defy common sense - and economic logic.