Allen Jones’s 1969 limited-edition sculptural trio of female mannequins doubling as furniture – Table, Chair and Hatstand – may have ruffled feathers when they were on show in the pop artist’s 2014/15 retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, but their Sotheby’s hammer price in 2012 soared clear of £2.5m. Formerly owned by flamboyant photographer, author – and playboy – Gunter Sachs, the Jones pieces have often been deplored for objectifying women, yet they are now considered significant parts of the pop pantheon. The Sachs sale also saw French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne’s limited-edition sheep stools – some of which graced Yves Saint Laurent’s ultra-hip Paris apartment in the 1970s – fetch over £1.6m. Such figures are just one sign of the current popularity of exuberant and provocative pop design.
The genre had its roots in midcentury design and pop art and peaked in the 1970s. Although influenced by American pop culture, it originated in Europe, spearheaded by Britain’s avant-garde Independent Group of artists and critics who, finding value in the vulgar, embraced subjects previously deemed unworthy of art – from mass-production to advertising. “Pop design’s visionaries included Allen Jones, along with Ettore Sottsass, Superstudio and Joe Colombo in Italy, Pierre Paulin in France and Verner Panton in Denmark,” says Megan Whippen, specialist in 20th-century design at Sotheby’s, New York.
London-based property developer Mithra Neuman, a long-established collector of pop design, is particularly drawn to its humour: “Its sense of folly makes you smile. You can see this in my Marshmallow sofa by US designer George Nelson. Why should a sofa be serious?” Pop design also encapsulates a moment in history, says the collector. “I used to own Joe Colombo’s 1969 Tube chair, which I bought for about £1,000 in around 1989, then sold at Rago Arts and Auctions in New Jersey three years ago for £7,000. You can unclip and clip it together again in lots of configurations. After the war people began to move house more, so furniture became more portable.” Neuman also emphasises that he doesn’t put his pieces on a pedestal – they are dotted around his home: “I even have a Panton plastic chair in the bathroom – it can’t be damaged by water.”
“These objects were meant to be fun and used,” concurs Joshua Holdeman, worldwide head of 20th-century design, photographs and prints at Sotheby’s. For this reason, “don’t be put off by objects that need a little work – say a light that needs rewiring”. Even so, it’s advisable to buy pieces whose fundamental materials are in good condition, says Christian Quinlan, co-founder of London auction house The Cabinet Rooms. “Avoid anything that needs extensive repair, is stained or discoloured, especially yellowing plastic. And provenance is key as there are so many fakes. Designers’ foundations will authenticate pieces. Also, be aware that reissued designs are not good investments.”
One rich seam for collectors today is Italian design, especially lighting, which is typically flamboyant and idiosyncratic – and often overlooked. “Italian designers and manufacturers supported experimentation and explored new materials such as foam, rubber and plastics,” says Simon Andrews, international specialist in 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie’s, London. “Italian design was revolutionary and adopted strange forms. We’ve seen real growth in the value of Italian lighting in particular – expressive designs created in small runs by independent companies such as ArteLuce and Arredoluce, which are scarce. Pieces sell for up to £30,000.”
Christie’s in London and Paris has sold many an outlandish Italian piece, such as Studio 65’s super-iconic Marilyn Bocca sofa, which fetched £4,375 in 2012, and Gianfranco Fini’s Programma lamp (£13,200 in 2007). Many 1stdibs dealers also sell pop design: Amsterdam’s Vintage Home has radical design collective Gruppo Strum’s grass-like Pratone seat ($13,432); Spazio 900 in Milan has Studio 65’s Capitello seat ($5,700); while Deja Vu Decor in Miami has pieces by lighting luminary Gaetano Sciolari (from $1,650). In London, Francesca Martire at Alfies Antiques Market stocks fantastical Italian lighting, including a pair of Candle lamps with bubble-shaped fibreglass shades, designed in 1968 by Gianemilio, Piero and Anna Monti (£8,800). Collectors, she says, should look for “quality, craftsmanship and balance between shape and size”.
French pop design – sometimes nicknamed pompidolien – is also being rediscovered. “The term applies to designers of the President Pompidou years,” explains Cédric Morisset, head of the design department at Paris auction house Piasa. “Georges Pompidou commissions included Pierre Paulin designs for the president’s official Elysée Palace residence. Bourgeois yet arty, the furniture – in luxurious bronze, smoked mirror and brass – was produced in small quantities, which adds to its value.” Designs by such names as Lalanne, Paulin, Roger Tallon, Olivier Mourgue, Ruth Francken, Yonel Lebovici, Pierre Cardin and Guy de Rougemont are particularly sought-after.
Restrained compared with Italy’s confections, French pop design was nevertheless rebellious. Standout examples include Claude Lalanne’s surreo-pop Crocodile armchair (an example sold for over €1.3m in 2012 at Sotheby’s, Paris) and de Rougemont’s 1972 Nuage, an ultra‑pop, cloud-shaped Plexiglas and steel table, which sold last November for €71,000 (more than €30,000 over the top estimate). Less highly prized but no less impactful is Tallon’s M400 spiral staircase, which fetched €10,000 in 2013 at Christie’s, Paris, while a Mourgue chair covered in a fabric by cult US designer Jack Lenor Larsen recently sold at Florida-based Palm Beach Modern for $3,120. Covetable pieces currently for sale include Paulin’s sexy Ribbon chair in royal purple ($6,000) at Paris’s A Demain, and a trio of de Rougemont Nuage side tables ($8,800 each) at Galerie du Passage (both outlets also sell through 1stdibs). The Moderns at Alfies has a stainless-steel and lacquered-wood dining table (price on request) by Cardin.
The US had many influential pop designers, too, an early proponent being George Nelson, yet certain pieces have been so widely – and well – reproduced that their value over the years has dropped, Andrews points out. Not so Italian furniture and lighting, which, it seems, is leading today’s pop-design revival, closely rivalled by France’s elegant yet edgy creations.