By any measure, modern design -- circa 1950-1960 -- is riding high.
There are a growing number of sales and exhibits, record prices, attention from museums, new books and the flattery of imitation in reissues and adaptations.
Although hardly antiques, pieces from the 1950s, 1960s and beyond have enough character and age to interest a growing number of fans, especially among young urbanites setting up a home or collectors in search of a category for which exciting finds are still a distinct possibility.
Modern design actually has been collectible for several decades, but what's hot continues to change. Currently, the work of individual craftsmen and small studio workshops and Italian design of the 1960s and beyond may be more desirable for some collectors than famous mass production names popular earlier.
"Knoll and Herman Miller are not so attractive now to collectors, who are more interested in pieces by carriage trade designers like Tommi Parzinger and Billy Haines," says Cara Greenberg, editor of The Modernism Magazine and author of several books on midcentury modern design.
With prices for modern furniture ranging from a flea market level of $100 or so up to six figures, bargain hunters and those with higher aspirations both can find what they want, says John Sollo, a principal of David Rago Modern Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., and co-author with Rago of "Collecting Modern: A Guide to Midcentury Studio Furniture and Ceramics" (Gibbs Smith, $39.95 hardcover).
Collectors are, of course, eager to find "good pieces" -- those with design pizzazz and rarity. Extra value attaches to items with a prized label or owned by celebrities or leading patrons of that particular artist or designer. For mass-produced designs, prototypes, which are the original model on which a production object is based, are highly desirable, especially if the prototype differs in some particulars from the mass produced version.
The least expensive items to buy will be either anonymous pieces or those produced in huge quantity and therefore not rare. The budget-minded need not concern themselves too much with name designers, labels and small variations from one model number to another, says Sollo, whose advice is: "If a piece is well made and you can afford it and like it, buy it."
Besides the obvious sources of auctions and specialty dealers, look for modern design at house and garage sales and flea markets and in used office furniture stores and consignment shops. A tip from Sollo: If you are trying to find the work of a small workshop, focus your search near where the shop was located. Look also for neighborhoods where specialty dealers congregate. In New York, lower Manhattan is home to a number of dealers in modern design. In Chicago, the Broadway Antiques Market at 6130 North Broadway has 80 dealers mostly specializing in modern design, according to Joe Kunkel, one of the dealers.
"The Internet plays a huge role in this collecting area," says Kunkel (http://www.jetsetmodern.com), who hosts an online discussion group about modern design. "You would have to read a lot of books and visit a lot of shops to get the variety of information and objects for sale that you're going to find online.
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