This month we welcome 20th century decorative arts specialist, Duane Kahlhamer, to The Pedestal and here Duane shares some of his auction insider insights.
The Pedestal: What drew you to the study and appreciation of design? A particular focus for you is British and German design in the interwar years, what is it that interests you about this era?
Duane Kahlhamer: My interest in 20th century decorative arts evolved through my reading of World War I poetry, especially the Imagist poems of Richard Aldington. I then read Aldington’s anti-war novel Death of a Hero (published in 1929), one of the first novels about the First World War. The novel’s hero, George Winterbourne, is at odds with the world around him, its pre-war British social values, and with what he saw as bourgeois complacency and hypocrisy in society before and after the war. This in turn lead me to read up on the ‘jazz age’ of the 1920s and discover the decorative arts and design of the interwar period.
One of the first objects I purchased locally was a Bush TV12 bakelite television. Art Deco in style, the design is actually from 1950. I would say what I collected in the beginning could be described as Art Deco ‘bric-a-brac’. My collecting now is more clearly defined, and much more selective in terms of what I buy.
I was already a keen collector of 20th century decorative arts when I embarked on working for an auction house, going to local boot fairs and auctions in and around Banbury where I grew up, travelling regularly up to London by train to visit the antiques markets in the Kings Road, like Antiquarius. Upon leaving school I worked at a local firm producing dot-matrix destination signage for vehicles and train stations before moving up to London to study for a degree.
Living in London I spent my weekends exploring The Stables antiques market at Camden Lock, Art Furniture in West Hampstead, the Saturday market on Portobello Road and Alfies antiques market in Edgware. After my degree I worked for a chauffeur company then in a university library for a few years before moving down to Brighton where I attended the part-time PGDip in History of Art and Design and Certificate in Life History Research courses at the Universities of Brighton and Sussex while working full-time as an admissions officer at the FE college. I then attended the MA in Fine Arts Valuation at Southampton Institute.
I continue to be a passionate collector, mainly German modernist design and British industrial design from between the wars.
TP: You’ve undertaken a number of research projects on various 20th century British and European designers and decorators; how do you go about determining that research should be undertaken on these subjects?
DK: Doing research for my dissertation I contacted London salerooms to learn more about the market for Betty Joel, the interwar British furniture designer and interior designer. This led to an internship at Christie’s South Kensington in the 20th Century Decorative Arts Department before joining the department as a junior specialist. I left Christie’s as a specialist in 2005 to be a full-time parent.
Away from the auction environment I wrote two articles for the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society – Individualist in Mayfair/László Hoenig: Architect, Interior Designer and Ehlers Pottery – and a volume of poetry. My interests for research so far have been recovering the life histories of émigré and women designers active in Britain during the 1930s. In a strange way, I find my own identity in researching the lives of others.
I am currently writing a paper on Denham Maclaren the British modernist furniture designer, again for the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society. Another topic is in the pipeline.
TP: What’s hot at the moment in the decorative arts collecting field?
DK: Since entering the auction world much about the market has changed. Prices for names like René Lalique remain strong, whereas those for Art Nouveau and Art Deco at the lower end of the market – established names like Émile Gallé, Royal Doulton, and Clarice Cliff – have dipped somewhat since the late 1990s/early 2000s. Conversely, the market for modern, post-war and contemporary design at that time was still in its infancy. Now it is an area which achieves the most impressive results – the serious buyers in this field being synonymous with collectors of modern and contemporary art.
Another area of increasing interest, at least with better known names like Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, and Magdalene Odundo, is 20th century British studio ceramics.
Like fashion, trends in the salerooms are cyclical – falling out of favour only to return another time.
Today, most salerooms in the UK hold 20th century decorative arts and design sales, some having established ‘themed’ sales particular to their brand – sale titles that stand out from the crowd. Salerooms are increasingly on the look-out for new markets. Last year I introduced the contemporary ceramicist Kitty Shepherd to auction. Bright and bold in colour with its Pop Art appeal, one of Kitty’s ‘Iconic FAB Lolly’ slipware vases with a pre-sale estimate of £1,000-1,500 sold for £12,562 with premium.
TP: What would be your ‘insider’ tip for collecting, perhaps a lesser known designer whose work demands more attention?
DK: When it comes collecting, I would not suggest any particular name or maker, but it should be something that is personally appealing to the collector. However, I would suggest some tips when it comes to buying. Important factors to consider are the profile of the designer or maker, originality of design, quality of manufacture, function, condition, rarity and provenance. In addition, it is advantageous for the collector to become an expert in their chosen field in order to negotiate the market. These days, decorativeness and the material in which something is made are more aspects of personal appeal than indicators of value. Plastics, for instance, once dismissed as cheap materials associated with mass production, might today be held in higher regard in terms of design innovation.
TP: What’s the most exciting piece you’ve seen in the area of decorative arts, and why?
DK: As a specialist, one hopes for personal favourites to come through the door, but this does not happen often. A recent favourite of mine, a rather understated German silver tea strainer and bowl by Emmy Roth, which I estimated at £1,500-2,000, made £3,750 with premium.
For me, the most exciting home-grown decorative arts to see first-hand were the interiors at the Glasgow School of Art and Hill House designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh’s vision, in considering all aspects of the interior, was without precedent and unique to him. Occasionally pieces by Mackintosh come up for auction.
Some of my best personal finds are a Wiener Werkstätte silver cake slice designed by Josef Hoffmann and a white relief and sgraffiti work by Michael Canney from 1979 titled Circle and Square variation No. 9.
TP: If money were no object what would you like to own?
DK: If money were indeed no object, I would buy a Paul Klee painting or a Marcel Breuer lattice chair.
TP: Which designers and items would you personally like to see on offer at The Pedestal?
DK: There are so many interesting designers and makers to choose, but, clocks designed by Archibald Knox for Liberty; figural pieces by Martin Brothers, the Victorian art potters, the lustre and Persian wares of William De Morgan; the Moorish-style furniture of the Italian Carlo Bugatti; early furniture by craftsman Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson; influential studio ceramicists like Lucie Rie and Hans Coper; ceramics by Pablo Picasso for Madoura, as well as the trompe-l’oeil furniture and furnishings by designer Piero Fornasetti. Personal favourites would include the modernist bent ply furniture of Alvar Aalto, Makers of Simple Furniture, and Isokon of the 1930s, as well as 1950s Finnish glass and metalwork from the Wiener Werkstätte.
TP: What are you looking forward to?
DK: I am extremely pleased to be working with Guy Savill and Sally Stratton in generating and establishing 20th century decorative arts and design content for The Pedestal’s sales calendar. Guy and Sally, both previously with Bonhams, have put so much care and thought into creating their own venture now situated in splendid Stonor Park, close to the historic home of the Stonor family, near Henley-on-Thames.