I find browsing through the catalogues of 20th century design auctions pleasantly addictive. I particularly enjoy the idea of many of those objects having the possibility of an extended real life out there in someone’s home, eventually. Of tables supporting piles of half-read magazines and traces of fresh coffee stains, consoles being scratched by bunches of keys every evening, lamps being turned on and chairs creaking as people sit at the dinner table. When I come across a piece of vintage furniture I really like, a whole room seems to grow around it in my mind. A very expensive room, as many of these objects have been going for pretty steep prices – at least until fairly recently. The 20th Century Design antiques market hasn’t been immune to the global economic meltdown, although it has held up surprisingly well, especially at the higher end of the market.
The vintage design scene is dominated by five main players, in terms of where the pieces come from and the most valued historical periods. Germany (Bauhaus designers), Italy (pretty much everything), France (Prouve of course, Royère, Mategot), Scandinavia (Aalto, Jacobsen, Panton) and US Mid-Century Modern (Eames, Nelson, Nakashima). Just to name a few. Then there’s everybody else, from the Czech Republic to Brazil. And, on rare occasions, Spain.
Until very recently, Spain was as entirely absent from the vintage design scene as the vintage design scene was absent in Spain. Now both are starting to rear their heads. So far, the occasional Spanish mid-century presence in the auction catalogues is limited to a couple of recurring typologies, but they are slowly becoming established. One of them is – to the horror of Spaniards who see nothing in them but the reminder of Francoist officialdom – the pieces by lighting company FASE, manufacturer during the 1960s and 1970s of wonderfully solid and excitingly modern-looking lamps for the desks of Spanish civil servants. Ironically, designer-anonymous Fase lamps are probably the best-known items of Spanish design in the vintage world. Not surprisingly, as some of them are truly gorgeous. They have recently found their way into the latest Indiana Jones film (on Indy’s desk, no less!) and an episode of the TV series House M.D. – Hollywood production designers know a good thing when they see it.
Another category of Spanish mid-century design that has become extremely successful abroad is the sunburst, both as mirror and as lamp. Again, to the dismay of modernity-seeking Spaniards who see them as the epitome of kitsch and the bane of dreary middle-class late 1950s entry halls. And again, I think they’re gorgeous.
But what about ‘real’ Spanish design, designer design, the kind of stuff that was getting ADI-FAD Delta prizes in the 1960s and 1970s? The stuff by Miguel Mila and Andre Ricard and Barba Corsini? Or even earlier 1930s stuff by the GATCPAC crew? There seems to be precious little of it out there.
The Butterfly chair (known as BKF in Spain) by Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, is virtually the only well-known piece by a Spanish designer that has a solid, enduring presence in the vintage design auction world. And that is probably because it was designed in Argentina in 1938 (Bonet, a Catalan architect, had fled Spain during the Civil War and founded the Austral group with Kurchan and Ferrari) and later manufactured by Knoll in the US, becoming an iconic piece of mid-century modern furniture design.
Another Spanish piece that has appeared recently in auction catalogues is a splendid reading lamp by Andre Ricard, one of Barcelona’s best known designers and part of the generation that helped establish the profession in the 1960s. The lamp was commissioned for the library of the Philosophy Faculty of Barcelona University in the early 1970s. The Faculty relocated to new premises a couple of years ago and the Library is no more, so I’m glad this lamp made it into the auctions circuit, because it certainly didn’t make it into the local design museum collections. It’a a beautiful, elegant piece, which combines a 70s sensibility with a certain Art Deco flair (see picture at top of post). It was manufactured by Metalarte, and I have found another version of it in their historical catalogue, which was probably the inspiration for the site-specific Library lamp.
So – where is Spanish vintage design? A lot of it probably ended up in the rubbish bin a long time ago. The preservation of mid-century everyday objects in Spain has been hindered by the fact that they represented a material culture of dictatorship, national isolation and anonymous design, and by an institutional infrastructure (read Museums) that lacked the means and the will to look after the design heritage efficiently. But there are some truly great pieces out there, both anonymous and signed, and I’m sure we will be seeing more of them as the interest in 20th century vintage takes root in Spain. And that will be a good thing, because we can’t always rely on museum collections to take care of the past.