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John Sollo
Co-owner, Sollo Rago Modern Auctions, Lambertville, New Jersey
Rather than there being a single defining moment in the 20th-century modern movement, it was a process that evolved over a long period of time. People like ourselves, Richard Wright and others, who had access to the material, identified what they thought was important, with the public ultimately weighing in on it and establishing the market. We were extremely excited about the work of artists like Paul Evans, Phil Powell, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, while for Wright, it was the work of both well-established and emerging artists from Italy, France and Scandinavia. So over the last ten years, if not well before that, the market was fueled by people who had a genuine love for the material, and the audience’s positive vote on that work brings us to where we are today.

Wharton Esherick is the greatest modern genius in American furniture design. Esherick was designing modern furniture well before other important figures like Paul Frankl and Charles and Ray Eames. The American studio furniture movement was spawned by Esherick and was a pivotal source of influence for American designers like Nakashima, Powell, Evans and Sam Maloof, and it continues to be today for a new generation of international furniture designers. As established as Esherick’s work has become, the market for it is still developing, but the increasing collecting of Esherick by museums and the exceptional prices his work now commands, as well as the 2003-04 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibition, “The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990,” have helped to solidify his undeniable role in establishing the field of modern design.

Mark McDonald
Owner, Mark McDonald, Ltd., Hudson, New York
The most important moment for 20th-century modernism in the past ten years was the work of three people: Alex Payne, James Zemaitis and Richard Wright. In the late ‘90s, Alex and James began gearing their Phillips auction sales towards the aggressive art buyers, who had never looked at decorative arts as being on the same level as the fine arts. At approximately the same time, Richard began his Chicago-based auction house, upping the ante with presentation and connoisseurship that attracted these art buyers as well. These auction houses solidified their advantage over the dealers and fairs, becoming the primary source for retailing modernism.

Odd as it may seem, I think the work of Charles Eames and his partner, Ray, is on the verge of being re-discovered. Even though considered by many to be the most important contributors to the 20th-century modern furniture movement, this team’s popularity and prices have been greatly overshadowed recently. I believe prices for original condition Eames Storage Units and LCW and Zenith fibreglass shell chairs have become relatively cheap! How is it possible that very ordinary pieces of George Nakashima and Paul Evans can fetch higher prices than exceptional examples of the Eameses’s work? Just because a piece is “custom” as opposed to “production” does not necessarily mean it is more rare or valuable. I cannot believe that work by a talented woodworker or a gifted metal smith can be given the same weight in an historical context as the Eameses.

Terence Riley
Director, Miami Art Museum, Miami, Florida
In 2001, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum presented simultaneous and complementary exhibitions entitled “Mies in Berlin” (co-curated by myself and Barry Bergdoll) and “Mies in America” (curated by Phyllis Lambert). Taken together, the two exhibitions represented the most comprehensive look in a generation at the long and influential career of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, arguably the greatest and most influential architect of the 20th century. Despite this, serious study of Mies’s work had been long neglected during the decades after his death.

The two exhibitions demonstrated that Mies’s work was relevant and critical to the architecture of the 21st century. Following two decades wherein Mies was held up as the echt symbol of modernism gone wrong, a new look at the work — from a more objective point in time — demonstrated the shallowness of the postmodern critique of Mies, in particular, and the 20th century in general.
For the first time, serious research was devoted to understanding Mies’s work in its varied contexts — from Weimar Germany to post-World War II America; from the city to the suburb to the countryside; from early, experimental works to mature and late works. Rather than reducing him and his work to a simple matter of aphorisms, the exhibitions saw the work in a fresh light, with greater connections to the shifting cultural points of reference that were the sources of his work than previously understood.

The dividing line between the 20th and 21st centuries may seem now to be a great gulf. However, there are many reasons to believe that it will not always been seen as such. Just as 16th-century architecture in Europe can be seen as a seamless extension of the intellectual ferment of the Quattrocento, the critical arc of the coming decades will not easily be separated from that of the 20th century.
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