Saturday 1 October 2016

Inflation hits voluptuous chairs

Treasures: Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Eleanor Flegg

Published 24/04/2015 | 02:30

The voluptuous Donna chair symbolises the position of
women in society
The voluptuous Donna chair symbolises the position of women in society

Imagine the joy of a self-inflating chair. It arrives in a large plastic envelope. When you open the envelope, the chair makes contact with the air and springs into shape. The "Up" series of self-inflating furniture was designed by Gaetano Pesce back in 1969 for the company, then called C&B Italia.

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Made in the spirit of Pop Art, the transformation of the chair was intended to create a "happening", so that the person who bought it, also participated in its creation. It was made of polyurethane foam and covered in synthetic jersey. Technologically, it was ground-breaking. Visually, it was bizarre.

The most famous, and enduring, of the "Up" series was a curvaceous chair called "Up 5/Up 6" or "Donna", which means "woman" in Italian.

Donna comes with a footstool - a giant ball that is attached to the main body of the chair by a string, and the whole ensemble rather suspiciously resembles a ball-and-chain.

For Pesce, who dreamed of mass production as a way of spreading his political ideas to a wider audience, the chair symbolised the position of women in society. "In that design, I was expressing my own view of women; they have always been, against their own wills, prisoners of themselves," the designer commented.

On a less elevated level, users have noticed that the chair is also shaped like a voluptuous woman's body. One curls comfortably on her lap and rests one's head between her breasts.

One of these curvy pieces of design history is coming up at de Vere's Design Furniture & Irish Art Auction on April 28. The auction starts at 6pm and viewing begins today in their showrooms on Dublin's Kildare Street, with full details on www.deveres.ie.

If Donna tickles your fancy, she's estimated to sell between €2,000 and €3,000.

Donna was reissued by B&B Italia in 2000, so new models of the chair are available. The upside of buying a new one is that you can experience the full joy of self-inflation. The downside is that a new Donna costs around €4,580. Unless the auction ends up with two bidders fighting over her (perfectly conceivable), the vintage model is much better value than the new.

This model is no shrinking violet. It's a big buxom piece of furniture and needs a big room to accommodate it. Other mid-century furniture in the same auction is less exuberant, particularly if it comes from Denmark.

Danish furniture was made to go in small houses or apartments and translates well into modern living spaces. "Danish rosewood furniture is very popular with people who like the Mad Men look," comments Rory Guthrie of de Veres.

At the upper end of the price range, there's a rosewood bureau dating from the 1960s, with a shelf that pulls out to form a desk, three drawers below and shelving above. Guided between €1,000 and €1,500, the bureau doesn't come into the cheap-as-chips bracket, but it's elegant, compact, and beautifully made.

You'd be pushed to find a contemporary piece of furniture of that standard for that price. Chairs seem to offer especially good value. A set of six rosewood dining chairs, attributed to Illum Wikkelso, are estimated between €800 and €1,200.

If they went for €900, that would work out as €150 per chair. This compares favourably to mid-range high street prices with no story whatsoever attached.

There are also plenty of cool-looking pieces estimated to sell for less than €500.

These include a small but comfortable pair of leather-upholstered tub chairs on tapering legs, a 1960s chrome executive's lamp in working condition, and a witty pair of Italian blue and black chairs with dished seats.

A sofa, clearly in the same series, reverses the pattern with a black seat and a blue back (€300 to €500). Like Donna, it's a vocal piece of Italian design that wouldn't be particularly easy to live with.

If you have some mid-century furniture in good condition, the auctioneers may well be interested, especially if you know the full history.

"Provenance is what buyers get excited about," Guthrie explains. He points to a pair of sofas designed by Finn Juhl for his own house in Denmark around 1950.

The iconic sofas came back to Ireland with friends of Ivan and Myrtle Allen, who toured Denmark and Sweden with them a few years after they had bought Ballymaloe House. The slightly scruffy sofas - the upholstery is original - are guided between €3,000 and €5,000 each.

Part of the reason for this high estimate is that the sofas have full provenance, which means the story of the pieces. Where mid-century furniture is labelled in such a way that identifies the designer and manufacturer, it increases the value of the piece.

"If you take the label off the back, the story dies," says Guthrie.

A chair that is "attributed to a designer" is much less valuable than one with an authentic label or a stamp. It may well be genuine, but there's no way of proving it.

There are also a great number of knock-off designs knocking around, and some of them are for sale at de Veres, identified as "in the style of" the designer. A look-alike Bibendum chair, for example, is described as "after a design by Eileen Gray" and guided between €300 and €500.

Its resale value would be negligible. A vintage authorised reproduction would be very much more expensive but, if you looked after it, would hold or increase its value.

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