Collecting vintage drinks cabinets

These midcentury shrines to cocktail hour are shaking up contemporary interiors with a hearty dash of decadence, says Virginia Blackburn

c1975 Paul Evans brass- and chrome-plated steel Cityscape Bar Cabinet, sold for £22,000 at Talisman
c1975 Paul Evans brass- and chrome-plated steel Cityscape Bar Cabinet, sold for £22,000 at Talisman

The appeal of a cocktail cabinet is that it brings glamour and fun to an interior and is a little risqué,” says Ken Bolan, owner of London-based design store Talisman. “We recently held an event for which we invited eight designers to create an interior, and every single one of them used a bar cabinet or cart.” Such contemporary cachet is the catalyst for a huge revival in demand for vintage versions of these entertaining pieces of furniture, with one dealer citing a 100 per cent price rise in recent years.

1950s Piero Fornasetti lacquered Trellis Cabinet, £21,000 at Themes & Variations
1950s Piero Fornasetti lacquered Trellis Cabinet, £21,000 at Themes & Variations

Some of the best examples were produced midcentury: “People were living in smaller spaces and still wanted to hold cocktail parties but no longer had staff to help,” says Macclesfield-based dealer Holly Johnson. “Midcentury Italian design led the way, taking over from the French art deco period. The big names were Aldo Tura, Piero Fornasetti, Gio Ponti, Osvaldo Borsani and Paolo Buffa.”

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There are also some noteworthy 20th-century American designs, after cocktail culture took off in a big way in the US. “Norman Bel Geddes designed the iconic Manhattan cocktail set in 1936, which was inspired by the city skyline and was part of a bigger interest in cocktail tables and cabinets,” says Dominic Bradbury, author of Mid-Century Modern Complete. “Midcentury cabinets have a playful, informal element to them but they are also enduring, well-designed pieces.” Possibly the most notable US designer is Paul Evans, whose heyday was in the 1970s when he created his famous Cityscape range of furniture.

1950s Paolo Buffa mahogany cabinet with 18th-century engravings, $39,500 from Gary Rubinstein
1950s Paolo Buffa mahogany cabinet with 18th-century engravings, $39,500 from Gary Rubinstein

“Around the midcentury, cocktail cabinets were the star of the show,” concurs Gary Rubinstein, a Florida-based antiques dealer. “People wanted to buy spotlight furniture pieces, so designers paid attention to all the bells and whistles and made them special. They also tended to make them higher than a normal cabinet, so the line of the eye would settle on it. Buffa, for example, was a master architect, which informed his work with furniture.” 

c1960 Aldo Tura wooden Book cabinet with lacquered goatskin, sold for £6,000 by Holly Johnson
c1960 Aldo Tura wooden Book cabinet with lacquered goatskin, sold for £6,000 by Holly Johnson

One of Rubinstein’s clients, a collector who lives in Hillsboro Beach, Florida, chanced upon an Evans dry bar at the Palm Beach Modern auction house about five years ago, and fell in love at first sight. “When you come across something so special, you just know,” she says. “The next step was that I had to bid. That was where Gary took over and luckily won. I always buy what suits me and consider beauty first and price second; the price of this one was $40,000 and it is worth every dollar.”

1970s lacquer, brass and marble bar, £2,500 at Les Couilles du Chien
1970s lacquer, brass and marble bar, £2,500 at Les Couilles du Chien

Prices for pieces by Evans have rocketed in recent years; a spectacular c1975 brass- and chrome-plated steel Cityscape Bar Cabinet with a highly contemporary feel was recently sold by Talisman for £22,000. But the entry level for cabinets by other designers does not need to be so high. A stylish 1970s Italian bar at London’s Les Couilles du Chien, for example, featuring black lacquer panels with brass-trimmed edges and a travertine marble top, is £2,500. “We stock interesting bars as I always feel they add a touch of decadence to an interior,” says the gallery’s owner Jerome Dodd.

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Many pieces deliberately signal the high spirits engendered by the bars’ contents and some seriously quirky design mixology comes into play, as in Tura’s creations. One in the form of an old leather book was recently sold by Johnson for £6,000, while another resembling a Roman column is priced at £12,500. “Tura’s niche was bars and he worked with goatskin and lacquer in the most beautiful colours, most often reds, greens and browns,” says Johnson. 

Rubinstein has a stunning mahogany and gilt bronze example ($39,500) by Buffa, with panels inset with 18th-century engravings of classical scenes. He also has a 1950s Luigi Scremin revolving cabinet (£16,500) in ash, walnut, olive wood and mahogany, depicting a still-life scene of musical instruments. Meanwhile, Themes & Variations, in London’s Westbourne Grove, is one of Britain’s leading dealers in Fornasetti, and owner Liliane Fawcett currently has a cream lacquered Trellis Cabinet (£21,000) with a gilt cane pattern, which was produced by the sought-after Italian designer in the 1950s. 

“These cocktail cabinets stem from an optimistic era; the people who made them were looking ahead,” says Bradbury. “Many are just incredibly ingenious, combining all sorts of different ideas into just one piece of furniture. They are aspirational.”

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