At the cocktail bar of Mayfair’s Dukes hotel – once a haunt of Ian Fleming and where the James Bond author was believed to have coined the phrase “shaken not stirred” – customers often take umbrage if their cocktails are not served from its famed drinks trolley. “Some cocktails, such as a passion-fruit martini, can only be made behind the bar,” says bar manager Alessandro Palazzi. “But that disappoints people. When they come to Dukes, they expect the trolley.”
Such is the sense of occasion they foster and why vintage pieces – in particular glamorous interwar or midcentury designs – are catching the eye of cocktail enthusiasts looking to bring ceremony into their homes. “Mixing a drink in the room adds to the drama,” says art deco specialist Jeroen Markies, a member of Lapada (Association of Art & Antique Dealers). He currently has a beautiful French-made satin-birch and walnut trolley (£2,850), a rare, lidded design that opens to reveal shelved doors and compartments for different bottles and spirits. “We can only guess what they were all for,” says Markies. “But that’s part of the fun.”
Galina Kuzmenko, principal banker at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, stacks her 1950s dual-shelved, glass and chrome trolley with glasses on top and a champagne bucket and bottles below, then wheels it out with a flourish when entertaining. “It’s very stylish but also practical,” she says. “It really looks the part.”
Around five years ago, drinks trolleys could be picked up for about £500; today most are in the region of £1,000-£3,000, with works attributable to famous designer-makers fetching up to £10,000. Names to look out for include Italian designer Aldo Tura (1stdibs currently has one of his stylish 1950s designs in red goatskin for £2,375) and modernist master Jacques Adnet (1stdibs has a selection of trolleys from around £7,750). Paris-based design house Maison Jansen, which made furniture for the Kennedys and various royal families from 1920-1950, is another name to watch, says Anna Evans, director and specialist head of European artworks at Christie’s. Trolleys feature about five times a year in the auction house’s monthly interiors sales.
But whatever the designer’s name, the wow factor is at the heart of the trolleys’ appeal. “They’re a conversation piece,” says dealer Nicholas Wells. One he currently has for sale – a chic two-tiered, glass and polished-brass number (£3,500 for a pair) with glass shelves and removable trays – looks the business. “They’re very smart, and you can’t go wrong with glass and polished brass or chrome; it’s a winning combination.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to show off your drinks on something knockout,” says Guinevere Antiques co-owner Marc Weaver. “If you have a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet, you’re not just going to serve a glass of white wine. You want your guests to see the label and explain it to them.” He currently has a striking brass and glass design (£1,450) – multitiered and from the 1950s – with two further shelves that rotate out. (In February, a similar trolley fetched £8,125 against an estimate of £1,200 to £1,800 at Christie’s.)
Among the most outstanding designs are French or British-made pieces from the 1920s, 1930s and midcentury. Art deco specialist Matthew Foster has a stunning trolley (£3,500) crafted from heavily grained Rio rosewood and Saint‑Gobain glass – two signature features of the era. “It’s a strong modernist and architectural design very much of that period in France, when advances in technology were being incorporated into the decorative arts,” says Foster. French pieces, he adds, were often more sophisticated and “high deco” compared to their British siblings. “The [French] used interesting combinations of materials – expensive veneers and rare woods.” Also on offer are minimalist designs (from £1,000) in chrome and glass that Foster calls Savoy trolleys, “because they had them in the Savoy hotel in the 1920s and 1930s”.
Particularly chic for the midcentury period is one (£2,900) in gilt bronze with a faux-wood and tortoiseshell base from Leeds dealer Windsor House Antiques. It has sold two other midcentury trolleys in the past 18 months for between £1,000 and £3,000. Some stunning trolleys can also be found at Marmorea London (which trades on 1stdibs), including a sleek design (£3,200) in solid brass and glass, which owner David Platt picked up at an antiques fair in Montpellier: “It’s neoclassical in style but still has that midcentury feel.”
Drinks trolleys from the 1970s became more elaborate, and Italian creations are worth seeking out. “They were on the kitsch side,” says Foster, “but often that’s the attraction.” Cue the zingy blue-and-white lacquered trolley (€2,700) from Milan-based Robertaebasta, inspired by the decade’s fascination with space travel, and Aldo Tura’s colourful parchment creations (from €2,500) in strong reds or light greens.
But drinks trolleys are not just for cocktail lovers. “Sometimes they’re used as bathroom stands and bedside tables,” says Evans. Platt has also seen them stacked with books (“like a mobile library”) or used as a computer table. FT agony uncle David Tang uses his mahogany and aluminium ones (“the older the better”) for afternoon tea: “Sandwiches, cakes, scones and jam, teapots, cups, napkins and plates – pile the lot on and Bob’s your uncle!”