Q & A with ValueMyStuff's 20th Century Design expert

ValueMyStuff sat down with our 20th century design expert, Robert Prescott-Walker, for a Q&A. Learn more about why Robert continues to love 20th Century Design and get insight into a specialist's valuation.

20th Century Design

How did you become an expert in 20th Century Design?

The seeds for my interest in Design History were almost certainly started from an early age, probably about six or seven, when my father took me to all the major London museums, many exhibitions, and quite a few country houses and car collections in the South and West of England. After that the real leap forward was my first year BA(hons) studies in ‘The History of Visual Art & Design’.

While the objects, designers, schools and institutions, such as the Deutscher Werkbund, the Bauhaus, the Design and Industries Association (DIA) are often heralded as the nest beds of Modern Design, what must not be forgotten is the wider social, political and technological developments that formed the basis for such new design and it’s use within everyday life. I seem to recall it was the

What does the title ‘20th Century Design’ include?

Well, from the point of view of VMS, there are several different areas, from the works produced by the major pioneer designers in the world of furniture and furnishings, to the product designer of the everyday items many of us live with everyday. The objects can include textiles, carpets, lighting, industrial products, ceramics, glass wares, computers, company logos, posters, fashion, sun glasses, candle sticks, toast racks or a salad bowl. Basically anything that has been industrially produced with a conscious application of design in the form and decoration, taking into account the function of that object.

How do you approach a valuation? Are there certain things you look out for?

There are plenty of things to look out for but not all apply to the same object. If I’m looking at a cantilevered metal and leather chair I know that there are hundreds of different designs from dozens of different designers, not to mention those everyday furniture companies who got their in-house designers to make up a version they could sell to undercut the others. So I need to look closely at the details. There are also many items that are wonderfully designed by known designers that have a very small value because they were mass-produced in there millions. There are icons of design, such as the Sony Walkman or the Barcelona Chair that can vary dramatically in value depending on condition and originality.

What is next for 20th Century Design within the Auction world?

When I started out in the 1980s it was early 80s Memphis, 1950/60s high end one-off Venetian glass, French Art Nouveau and Art Deco Glass, and Bronze and Ivories figures, Lalique glass and Bugatti furniture, amongst others. The last few years have seen the rise of Tiffany, mid-century furniture from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and America in particular, a move in the focus of collecting and furnishing from the late 19th and early 20th century to ‘Mid-Century.’ Right now the interest is in Harry Bertoia, Le Corbusier, Jean-Michel Frank, Italian 1960s furniture such as Piero Fornasetti, furniture of George Nakashima, Paul Evans, Marc Newson designs and Charles & Ray Eames.

Looking to the future, more Mid-Century Modern with a twist towards the Brutalist elements. The simple and gently curved clean lines of the last few years seem to be turning towards a hard edged angular look. Also, natural elements turned Brutalist. Carlo Mollino, Isamu Noguchi and Alberto Giacometti are all high-end names that will continue to command respect in the future.

Is the current market leading itself to 20th Century Design?

Quite frankly, 20th century design, at the high end, along with rare collectible motorcars, which might also be considered 20th century design, are some of the new investor areas. Whilst the world of Fine Art goes into an ever-distant stratosphere of massive prices, the world of fine and rare 20th century designs has become an affordable and available alternative for many. In a small way, at our level we can collect, research, enjoy and live with our version of what we like in the world of very affordable 20th century design.

What do you find most popular within 20th Century Design? i.e. Furniture, Furnishings, Metal Works or Works of Art.

Mid Century Modern Furniture and furnishings are currently the objects of choice when comes to furnishing your home, whether doing so yourself or using the services of an interior designer. This has been the case for perhaps around twelve years or so. Of course, the ‘style’ or ‘look’ varies in each country, France, Italy, Britain and America each having their own look.

What do you think are the most common mistakes made by both collectors and dealers of 20th Century Design?

Going for the ‘wrong’ designs or rather the ones that were always secondary or less expensive at the time. Those that were ‘followers' at the time will usually remain so then and now. Collectors and dealers often purchase in volume the less expensive items of well-known or collectible markets in glass, ceramic, furniture of furnishings. These might look good en mass and if that is the aim all well and good but their value will never increase dramatically. That said, strong prices can also be achieved when there is enough of a particular item to get a good group of collectors interests. Availability can be a good thing for prices.

What do you feel influences the popularity of 20th Century Design?

As with any collectible item, there have to have been just enough made to make them available to buy today, with a few variations and prototypes to add spice and value. If something was made in very small numbers, perhaps only a couple of dozen being made, these become Museum pieces, sometimes with high value but not much interest to the collector. The company I often refer to when asked this type of question is the Moorcroft Pottery. It has been made for decades, with endless variations in pattern design and colours, with designs altering over the years as styles and trends change, some designs having limited runs, with new designs always popping up and enough variation in pattern and colour palette to appeal to a very broad church of collectors.

What is your personal area of interest within 20th Century Design?

I have always been most interested in the designs and products of the Arts & Crafts Movement in Britain, America and its effects on European design. It could be argued that where British Arts & Crafts, including the Scottish element of the same, failed, around 1900/1910 the Europeans took over and translated Arts & Crafts design into ‘Industrial Design’.

I also have a particular interest in mid-century product design for the home. The advent of the ordinary designer, fresh from the newly created post-war design courses at UK colleges working with industry to create and direct product designs for the post war era. Affordable, everyday designs across the board in home furnishings, fashion and furniture, an example being Terrance Conran and the establishment of Habitat chain of stores.

How would you recommend starting a collection of 20th Century Design? (any trick or tips)

Buy what you like, should always be the rule. But in terms of 20th Century Design, the collectors I know go for a certain look, era or style, whether it be Danish mid-century, colourful Italian post modern, the American Arts & Crafts Mission look, or something from the endless variety of mid-century American modern interior.

It can be great fun and very rewarding to follow your passion and design each room of your house with different elements of choice. There are so many sources to help from magazines, to design books of the period, let alone all the modern magazines on design and the house.

Having said that you might want to collect a certain design product and the variations and alterations that occurred over the years. The design and technological history of the radio or the floor fan-heater, are a couple of collections I have seen.

What do you like about working with ValueMyStuff?

Interesting question. It has to be seeing and dealing with the continued variety and wealth of objects that have been made in all parts of the world in the 20th century.

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