Only after the century was done and dusted did 20th century design become a serious collectible worth serious amounts of money. The major auction houses started to dedicate time and staff to it and, most notably, a cabal of Parisian design galleries created a market for the French modernists the likes of Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand by a very controlled release of pieces after years of careful collecting, collating and documenting.
Indeed, Scandinavian design, though much admired and collected, was a little overshadowed by the success of its French - ironically more industrially-minded - counterpart. But now comes its moment in the limelight. Phillips de Pury, the auction house that has done the most to promote the market for 20th century design, held a major Nordic design sale in London this month: 120 lots in the sale generated sales of some £2.3 million, with some big money spent.
A Spiral wall light by Poul Henningsen sold for an artist’s record of £253,250. A pair of Paavo Tynell standard lamps went for £32,450 - eight times the estimate.
For Alexander Payne, Phillips worldwide director of design, the show could prove something of a watershed for how Scandinavian design is viewed by collectors of 20th century and contemporary design.
“This is an enormous market for the future with new collectors coming to it every year,” he says. “The future is very exciting - this sale has been one of the most warmly received in the market - and there is a popular belief that this sale has changed the face of how Scandinavian design is perceived.”
This is an enormous market for the future
Of course, the design market is not yet the place for those looking for guaranteed returns - and probably never will be. That doesn’t mean that big money doesn’t change hands for the work of Scandinavia’s big-name designers. In the current market you could be looking at £20,000-£30,000 to take home a 1930 chair by Swedish designer Erik Gunnar Asplund or up to £150,000 for a 1924 table by fellow Swede Anna Petrus. On the other hand, a 1932 armchair by the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, one the true godfathers of Scandinavian design, may fetch between £38,000 and £42,000 - though, while prices are likely to hold, the returns on such investments further up the line are unpredictable given the newness of the market.
As Mr Payne makes clear, the recent auction - curated by the American architect Lee F. Mindel and sold as much as an historical survey as a highest-bidder bunfight - is something of an opening shot in this market, an attempt to educate and draw in collectors, experienced and novice. What it is not is a simple run through the obvious big names or blue-chip safe bets - because, for the moment at least, Scandinavian design history doesn’t offer as such.
“We don’t consider Scandinavian/Nordic design to be a ‘safe bet’,” insists Mr Payne. “What’s exciting and unique for the market is less the usual suspects as fresh talent and bringing new designers to the market. Collectors are digging deep into Scandinavian culture, exploring the world of the cabinet makers and glass/ceramic artists and the different styles and expressions coming out of this region. They are discovering new and exciting designers they have never seen before such as Eva Hild, Björn Ekström, Kaj Gottlob and Vilhelm Lauritzen.”
Indeed, Mr Payne suggests that the real investment pieces are every bit as likely to be found in clever buys of the designers working today - designers working in the distinctive, accessible Scandinavian tradition but still at "everyday" prices, and so offering the best chance for a major return in decades to come. “We are watching this area of the market very carefully,” he says. “The new generation of Scandinavian designers is incredibly exciting. Work by Jouko Kärkkäinen is a beautiful example of where we see Aalto’s design still inspiring today’s designers. I would even say that many up and coming Scandinavian designers are doing new work of international importance.”