Antiques Today – August 2010

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If the definition of an antique is something that was made a hundred years or more ago, then the first Barcelona Chair that the German architect Meis van der Rohe ever designed and made would almost be an antique today. The same could be said of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair, or of Le Corbusier’s classic reclining day bed. The designs of Josef Hoffmann and Charles Rennie Mackintosh are most certainly antique using this definition.

image1And yet all of these classic designs still appear to be as modern, cutting-edge and contemporary as the day they first appeared. Open a modern design publication printed this year,
and there will be a few of these designs sprinkled across the pages.

The Modern ethos that informed the design of these and other similar pieces may not have changed, but what has changed is our reaction to them. Eighty years ago our contemporaries would have been shocked and bewildered by the sight of them. They were the UFO space ships from District 9 hovering in the corner, waiting for discreet miniature doors in the smooth shiny chromed surfaces to open up and discharge a new order that would tumble our sense of order and stability, the world as we knew it.

Eighty years on however, they are the pieces that are still sitting in some of our parents, and possibly even our grandparents’ living rooms. Today our reactions to them have changed because we have become used to them. Or somewhat so. They are almost as familiar to us as the chime from the Regency Grandfather clock in the hall. They can give us the same sense of well being and comfort as a bowl of chicken noodle soup.


I qualify our relationship to these “modern” pieces because not everyone had them a generation or so ago – they weren’t part of everyone’s childhood – and despite some of them being around longer than we have, we still view them – and their later “offspring” – as being brand new. And many, while they might admit to liking them, can’t bring themselves to admit these pieces into their lives, whilst others embrace them completely and want these – and these alone – in their contemporary minimalist cocoons.


That is changing.


Words have connotations: mention “antique” and the eyes of some people in our inner circle we prefer to keep hidden from general cultured society droop as they stifle yawns and begin
to dream of dusty irrelevant museums, where furniture looks smothered in lavender polish and smells like the colour brown.

image3Likewise with “Modern” design. While there have been designers of furniture and objects for centuries, the separation of the design from the manufacture of an item is largely a result of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, and is thus clearly relatively recent movement in humanity’s history. But it’s been around a lot longer than TV has! And yet it’s taken a long time for us to recognise it en masse. Indeed the terms “design” and “designers” have only been widely used since the mid Twentieth Century, and the worldwide interest in collecting items of modern design only began in serious earnest since the 1980’s. Items of modern design have only been regularly exhibited at prestigious antique fairs, such as the SAADA fairs, for less than a decade.

So while “antiques” put some people to sleep, “modern design” scares the pants off others.

Publications have for decades celebrated interiors dedicated
to a particular era, whichever one is seen as the current trend. Adhering to one period however, becomes restrictive
as to what you can introduce into a room and what you can not. It also becomes largely representative of that period, celebrating it and simultaneously neglecting the personality of the occupant. SAADA, through the diverse specialization of its members, fights off the notion of items being trendy.

An early Nineteenth Century Beidermeier secretaire, with its bold shapes, handsome detailing, and polished celebration of dramatic wood grains, is always beautiful and should always have a place in an interior. Likewise the reflectivegleam and fluid steel mesh of a Harry Bertoia chromed-metal armchair is an incredible combination of clever design and the boundary-pushing of the nature of materials. Put these two carefully in
a room together and the result can be breathtaking!


Its how items are combined that will determine the drama and mood forming success of an interior. If you allow yourself to experiment, any item with integrity of its own can have a place in your home. There is no reason your generation sold French armoire heirloom should stop you from acquiring that vintage Le Corbusier recliner that’s had you excitedly chewing your knuckles ever since you saw it at the Wanderers SAADA show last October.

It’s the tension created by juxtaposing items of differing periods – their shapes, colours, and materials – that will bring an interior to life. Its how the individual pieces are “reinvented” and collectively used that give each of them
current relevance.

Where traditional design is restrictive, eclectic interior decoration opens up those boundaries and gives a new freedom of expression. It’s suddenly exciting. It allows you topersonalize your living, working and play space. Inherited items can be combined with newly bought treasures, and these items can be selected, not because they belong to a period, but because of their own specific qualities that make them individually interesting, quirky, and beautiful.

To see a heady mix of the very old – grand Georgian dining suites, Victorian linen presses, and exceptional Cape furniture – and somewhat newer items, such as fabulous 1930’s Art Deco, and 20th Century Modernist designer pieces, plus an extraordinary array of art, silver, jewellery and glass spanning the centuries, make sure you diarise the SAADA Johannesburg fair at the Wanderers, from the 15th to the 18th October. In the meantime, visit the website and find the dealers close to you.


Paul Mrkusic

Visit the SAADA website at for news and information on SAADA and its members.

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