The soft edges of Brutalism

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After years of bad publicity mid-century brutalist furnishings have been enjoying somewhat of a revival. Its fair to say these items have always elicited a love/hate response in people and for anyone who has ever seen such items, its easy to see why. Incorporating concrete, wood or forged metal, they are often raw, brash and cold. Yet while the smaller furnishings are often lumped alongside their very unpopular architectural relatives, its important to recognise key differences that I think mean such artworks should not be written off with the same well-tarnished brush.

Brief overview:

In architectural terms the Brutalist movement emerged in the early 1950s as an academic reaction to the increasing blandness of post war modernism, and Le Corbusier and Miles van der Rohe were quickly cast as the spiritual heads. Formed from the French word for ‘raw concrete’ brutalism represented a new voice tired of the slick-back self-engrossed confidence of industrially uniform design.  It offered a new bold design language and the promice of social improvement through considered design. As a highly malleable material, the brutalist buildings that emerged were unashamedly concrete, modernist and brash. They found quick favour with institutions and planners in Britain and worldwide keen to build a new landscape, but by the mid 1970s as the promices failed to materialise, the style began to decline.

Institute of Education

Brutalist furniture and furnishings emerged around the same time in the early 1950s and also embraced many of the same principles as architecture. However, being of a far smaller scale, these objects did not pretend to be a solution to any of the social debates that ultimately toppled the architectural dream. Instead the brutalist designers and artists seemed to draw more inspiration from the craft movement as well as abstract and surreal expressionism. Inspired by the works of artist such as Willem de Kooning or Alberto Giocometti, the new brutalist furnishings tried to express a sense of urgency and energy by using overtly hand-made industrial methods often incorporating geometric or random forms.  Works by early protagonists such as Marcello Fantoni or Paul Evans tend to have an immense sense of raw power to them as though ripped from the depths of the earth or forged in passionate haste from the anvil. They wear their wounds of frantic torch cuts and solder blobs proudly. By the latter 1960s the early zeal had somewhat burned away and while pieces still bore the brutalist hallmarks, the style had certainly evolved. Under artists such as Curtis Jere or companies like Poliarte the look became far more refined, thoughtful and in turn serene. At the more mainstream end pieces in turn became tamer and sometimes more kitsch to appeal to a more commercial environment. It is this reason why many people get confused by the term ‘brutalist art’ when they first google it. In the end it was the ability of the object to suggest a sense of energy (whether brutal or calm) and elicit a response in people that really tied them under the same universal label.

Incorporating the brutalist look today

As we progress further and further into another age of elegance, then small brutalist offerings full of sculptural energy can actually work well in our homes. In small doses such as on a simple sideboard or against a white wall they offer a burst of unashamed vitality that usually complements the general quietness of our rooms. While pieces by the leading artists and sculptors were often signed and can set you back a four or five figure sum, the vast majority of brutalist items were not. Therefore many great items can still be picked up for mere pounds, and when considering any piece (irrespective of price) it should be all about how it makes you feel. As sculptures these things were always intended to elicit an emotional response. Therefore no matter how awkward the dinner party may become, brutalist art can always be relied upon to get the conversation started again!

Concrete stairs photo credit to  Ben Adlard

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The welcome return of Art Deco

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You may have noticed a new resurgence of interest in the Art Deco era.  To be fair, it is a style that has never really left us as its heritage, personality and principles can still be found woven into all our homes and offices whether via original features, later reinterpretations, or even just amid our continued respect for crisp design and open spaces. Though fashions come and go, Deco speaks to many of the warmth and confidence of halcyon days, of the successful merging of art and industry and of timeless elegance. And unlike later mid-Century Modern items, the Art Deco period also offers a far more mature and established field in which to collect.

It was Judith Miller who reminded me recently, at the launch of her latest publication ‘Art Deco, the glamour of the Jazz Age’, that Deco was our first truly democratic and global style. She is right of course. From the lofty exclusive heights of Emile Ruhlmann or Ferdinand Preiss, to the unknown mass-produced items that filled every department store of the day, there was indeed something for every pocket and continent. But it was also much more than just this. Today as we look to re-embrace the Art Deco style, it is worth considering its roots and ideology to help us better understand it and welcome it into our modern homes again.

The seeds of Deco:

Many still believe that Deco was somehow miraculously conceived at the opening of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art that took place in Paris in 1925, yet in truth it has roots that stretch back much further. What came together at the 1925 World’s Fair was a fresh global energy that wanted to forget the tragedy and austerity of the First World War, that wanted to embrace the newly emerging machine age, and that also wanted to open the windows widely to the stuffy legacy of cluttered Victoriana. Bauhaus, Thonet, the Secessionist designers and Rennie Mackintosh of course all played their part in creating the design language of Deco simplicity, but so too did the wave of expats newly returned from Europe’s now shrinking Empires. Indeed look at photos of any period interior and you will quickly see that Deco’s draw was not only its ability to declutter the lines and physical spaces, but to also embrace the cultures that these expats used to call home. Open plan rooms (that have been the traditional dwelling format for many tribal cultures) suddenly took off in the 1920s as a new, exciting and healthy concept, and amid the sleek new modernist furnishings encased in exotic timbers, nestled ancient motifs and antique ethnic artefacts. In many ways it was an era much like our own, one learning to co-exist in a global melting pot of ideas and designs.

Newark, Art Deco

Collecting Deco:

When it comes to collecting and integrating Art Deco into our homes then according to Jeroen Markies, one of the leading Art Deco specialists in this country, it is all about buying statement pieces with discernment. “There is a lot of interest globally at the moment in top quality English made items by the top designers such as Epstein and Hillie, and particularly in lighter timbers. Hollywood movies like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or programmes such as ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ have all reignited our love for 1920s frivolity and glamour, and it is a look that still works well in our modern homes”.  But as interest in Art Deco continues to buck the general downward trend of antiques, it is also an important time to buy well as supply of the best pieces continues to dry up. For anyone new to the field, then purchasing or at least discussing from reputable established dealers is strongly advised not only because most pieces were sadly unlabelled, but also because subtle variances in colour and form can have a very big impact on both desirability and value.  According to Jeroen, the savvy collector should also really focus on prewar pieces first as the build quality did drop off dramatically after WW2.

The Changing Face of Australian Pubs

Welcoming it into our homes:

Unlike Art Deco collectors of the past who were more puritanical in their look and interest, today’s buyers seem far happier to mix things up. And that’s the great thing really, as a style originally intended to complement a whole host of other periods and cultures, Deco just works. Whether your other interests are African masks or Chinese porcelain many items simply look better juxtaposed on a crisp deco sideboard. For the academic amongst us, there is also lots of literature to be found.

So go on and Deco-rate your homes. Embrace those unashamed bronzes and chrome uplighters and revel in burr walnut or birds eye maple. For even if they provide your home with just an extra ounce of 1920s frivolity, then amid our austere times, that is surely money well spent!

Deco lamp photo credit by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose; deco living room photo credit by Michael Coghlan

Vandalising our Past

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One of the most famous pieces of modern Chinese art is a set of 3 images from 1995 showing the artist Ai Weiwei intentionally dropping and smashing a 2000 year old Han dynasty urn. In fact he actually smashed two, since the photographer failed to capture the first drop successfully. Oops. As a cultural statement this seemingly mundane act somehow hit at the heart of many people’s sense of sentimentality and decorum regarding the care of our antiques and there was a public outcry against this all too blatant act of vandalism in the name of art.

High profile vandalism within antiques is an all too common story. Whether its the Taliban blowing up Buddhas, Militants destroying Iranian museums, the never ending debate over the Elgin marbles that were ripped from the Parthenon, infamous paintings slashed to make a political point or, as I read a few months ago, US immigration officials smashing ivory components from a host of antique treen because they had not been properly declared. When the Ivory story was reported in the press, I clearly remember the impassioned backlash that hit social media the next day. While the US authorities had merely followed protocol in upholding the tight anti-ivory laws that exist in the States, for antique lovers everywhere their actions were perceived as little better than Ai Weiwei’s.

The other week when collecting an object I’d purchased, I chanced into the owners workshop where a rather lovely Georgian rosewood card table was in the process of being permanently lost under a fresh layer of crackled gold leaf and black paint. Though the transformation was intended to make the item more saleable, to me it seemed like an unjust funeral for such a good original item.  I felt a 2000 year old vase smash inside me, but being English I said nothing. Only when I got home and looked around did the reality dawn. The truth behind most everyday ‘vandalism’ is that we all live with, accept and sometimes cherish elements of it in our own homes and that perhaps it only affects us when it openly rejects our own beliefs. From dressing tables cut down into bedside cabinets, wardrobes refashioned into bookcases, tables stripped, paintings over-restored, chairs recovered and a multitude of items repainted to the latest fashionable finish, we are all culpable perhaps for allowing the unnecessary destruction of our antique items.

The above are obvious examples, yet things can also be far subtler. I was surprised to learn the other day that nobody actually knows what an authentic 18th century finish was like on furniture. With a lack of written documentation, natural decay, over zealous waxing and pieces being refinished using 19th century shellac recipes, no-one still knows how 18th Century homeowners would have expected their new furnishings to have looked. Even without realising it, the most conscientious among us are still a little culpable of some light vandalism as well.

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‘Vandalism’ remains an emotive term because it implies not just the wilful destruction of the object itself but more importantly the wilful rejection of what it stood for.  The Chinese respect for tradition and ancestor worship meant it was not surprising a broken old vase upset people. Yet had the artwork happened in our own country over the last few years, I wonder if we would have reacted the same way?  In our world ‘upcycling’ remains the buzzword for savvy Millenials and countless television hours are spent teaching us that an old item is only really desirable now when refashioned into something new. Beyond just the physical change, we have also chosen to downplay many of the intentional meanings of the past in favour of our own modern far softer melting pot approach. Looking around at the hotch-potch of antiques I choose to live with, I see that I’ve also unwittingly vandalised the original meaning out of many of the objects I so love. For example a pure Cotswold cabinet that defined the virtue of traditional handicraft and rejection of mass-production holds our mass produced TV, a 16th century carving of a saint that is meant to evoke the higher unworldly place of God sits beside a 1920s Gramophone, an object for praying to the false idols of popular music. I could go on….

In 2014 Ai Weiwei’s controversial work was part of an exhibition in Miami. Displaying a series of ancient pots dipped in modern bright house paint, a member of the public walked over, picked up one pot and dropped it on the floor. This act of vandalism was reputedly a protest against the museum’s preference for displaying international over local artists, but the bitter irony was lost on the authorities who arrested the man, and also to Ai, who the man later had to apologise to.   While antiques remain so embedded not just into politics and ideology but the whirlwinds of fashion and novelty …….I wonder what wilful vandalism we will subject them to next?

Broken Mirror photo attribution: by Massimiliano Calamelli

The future of Collecting…..

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In front of me, my three year old son sits playing on the floor.  A plastic train in one hand and die cast helicopter in the other. A constant yapping and moving of his arms shows these two toys are talking to each other, and through them I know he is role-playing important relationships that will serve him for life. Child psychologists from Piaget to Gardner have proved for years that play remains one of the most important developmental tools we have.

Unless you are an international museum or serious financial investor, then I believe playing and collecting are merely a continuation of each other. Though funds dictate what we collect, through the acts of exploration, learning, empathy, ordering and cultural connectivity we too as adults are safely exploring and evaluating the world beyond our own experiences, just like my three year old. Who amongst us hasn’t got lost in the fantasy of an antique or felt their heart race during the chase? And that’s a good thing, we are playing with and exploring the past on our own terms.

As times change, the debate over whether the culture of ‘collecting’ is dying seems to be bubbling hotter and hotter. Perhaps due to financial, space and time constraints traditional collecting fields are failing to attract the level of young blood desired. Perhaps our modern throwaway culture has made us all a little bit more selfish and the next generations are refusing to become guardians of our material past. Perhaps newer areas of life such as technology and the entertainment industry have grabbed our ever shortening attention spans at the expense of good old-fashioned wholesome collecting. Like everyone else I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball. But perhaps instead we are just experiencing in real-time the pain and rejection of changing fashions. Perhaps the ancient art of meaningful accumulation is still alive and well but in a slightly different form. A US study on the psychology of collecting undertaken during the 1980s made a relevant point. One result of collecting is the sense of immortality. A sense of saving an idea, skill, way of life or craft for posterity.  When that collection or enthusiasm is rejected (ie by a younger generation) it can cause emotional pain.

As someone who stands at a few antique fairs and attends plenty more, I am always surprised at how many young people I actually do come across. Granted few leave with pockets full of Meissen and Crown Derby but their presence and enthusiasm is obvious and usually most will leave with something no matter how small. If questioned I suspect many would say they were not collectors per say, but that doesn’t mean they don’t collect. Only the other day I drove to a young couple’s home in London and was immediately struck by the decor. The rooms were full of the eclectic mix of antiques and quirky curios that is so on trend right now. Far from having no order, you could say it was a carefully curated collection that praised and contrasted form, colour and texture. This couple, typical I suspect, weren’t ‘collecting’ based on academic labels or names, but on a more visual set of criteria. And I think that’s ok. If our shelves of blue and white teapots have been replaced with coral, kitsch and industrial cabinets, then at least the passion and process of collecting is still alive.

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To those saddened by the decline in interest within traditional collecting fields then I would say not to despair. It is widely known that the children of addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves. Who in their rebellious youthful days would expect to be enchanted by caddy spoons and Doulton slipware like their parents when they were older? But we change. When I was young I would thumb through my parents record collection, and while at the time I would never admit to liking their choices, my ipod now is full of the same artists my parents had on vinyl.

To be a true collector is an active not passive role. Though we can admire the fabulous collections of others, a collection given is never as sweet as a collection found.  It may take several years before a younger generation return from exploring their more eclectic sides to rediscover on their own the beauty of our more traditional antiques, but they will. They will because you have taught them through your passion the cultural value of those objects and the feelings of connection they bring.

 

Addendum:

For cold hard facts around the nature of collecting, there appear to have been no professional studies conducted recently. The research I found was all collected nearly 30 years ago and while I did contact three leading sociologists for help (Christian Jarrett and Daniel Miller in the UK and Shannon Dawdy in the US) none could point me towards anyone or anything that was relevant. In part this lack of any recent professional study into the topic only perpetuates the perceived concern.

Photo Credit: blue porcelain by Thomas Quine; industrial interior photo by Wicker Paradise

Enjoying Mid-Century Lighting

Louis Kalff Z lamp

From the first flicker of Thomas Edison’s light-bulb in 1879, man-made lighting has come to dominate our everyday lives. From softly lit corners to endless industrial installations, the ability to override the sun has not only changed the way we do things, but has allowed us to explore the creative and emotive effects of light and shade on spaces also. As the interior design legend Billy Baldwin once noted “there is one fundamental fact about lighting: where there is no light, there is no beauty”.

Inspired by our current love for all things vintage, there has been a real surge in interest this past year for crisp mid-century lighting. The progression is a natural one, since many of the industrial designers we most admire from the post-war period also produced lamps as well. It’s almost an unwritten truth that every reputable designer and architect feels the need to design both a chair and a lamp at least once in their career. Luckily for us, that has left a wealth of beautiful designs to go and discover…..

1950s Mid Century Modern Rattan and Metal Lamp Modernist

How mid-century lamps differ:

When the first electric lamps emerged within only a few years of Edison’s 1880 bulb patent, they were to pioneer a new and still distrusted light source. Designers aware of this fact, pursued the common tactic of emulating the form and features of other accepted lamps at the time- namely the candle and oil lamp. It would be a shrewd move, but one that would ultimately influence the principles of lamp design for the next 50 years.  While lamps running up to the early 1920s may have been beautifully constructed, they still tended to lack their own unique identity, preferring instead to emulate candlesticks, chandeliers and oil lamps.

O-051-Oil Lamp

It was not until the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s that things really began to change as more avant garde designers such as Eillen Grey and Christian Dell began to push the boundaries of what a lamp could look like. For the first time lamps became their own sculpture, but while designs of this period were to be injected with all the elegance of Art Deco, in essence many still maintained a close homage to other things such as furniture, architecture or statues.  Finally, it was to be the post-war era, with the austerity of the 1930s and WW2 behind them, that lamps could take on a new life all of their own.  Post-war designers were waking up to the fact that electric lights were neither furniture nor oil lamps and that the light and shadows they cast mattered just as much.  Freed from past shackles and keen to embrace new modern materials, lamp designs during the mid-century period would become more wild and outrageous than ever before, pushing the boundaries of physical and conceptual design, colour and materials.

Ostuni Lamp

The changing look……

In all respects mid-century lamp designers were concerned with space, both positive and negative, and the shadows and shapes formed from their pieces.  From the atomic space age lamps of Louis Kalff for Philips, Greta Grossman, Gino Sarfatti or Pierre Gauriche, the lamps of the 1950s screamed of the excitement of space exploration incorporating spindly tubular steel and pressed metal shades in bright atomic forms.

By the 1960s, while some still revelled in pieces that looked straight out of the laboratory,  others were beginning to focus on softer, more organic shapes made from complementary materials such as wood, glass, metal and paper. Names such as Jean Royere, the Castiglioni Brothers or Verner Panton were to produce beautiful pieces mixing both strength and frailty. Moulded plastics were also growing in commercial use during the late 50s to 60s and names like Joe Columbo, Gae Aulenti and Vico Magistretti were to show how simple plastic forms (easily mass produced) could still be considered elegant. Ingo Maurer was amongst a group of designers showing us how anything however random could be turned into a lamp, and Max Sauze was wowing us with his sci-fi polished aluminium sculptures.

beautiful raak lamp

Buying…….

For the sake of this overview there really are far too many great names to mention and every collector naturally has their own favourites. The important thing to remember is that the post WW2 period was the age of industrial designers. Competing for important contracts with the big retailers who could make or break them, the 1950s to 1970s saw an explosion in both creativity and competition among lamp designer and thus a hive of productivity. Don’t forget this when out buying. While the original examples by the very best names may now set you back thousands of pounds, second tier or unnamed examples (which often have just as much flair) can still be found at fairs or online for the low tens to low hundreds of pounds. The thing to do is go with your gut instinct and if the lamp makes you smile and you think you can find a space for it in your home, then it’s time to start haggling!

Many of the most innovative lamps of the mid-century period were produced outside the UK running on unearthed 220volt fittings, so it is common and preferable to find them already rewired for the UK.  Modern competent rewiring usually doesn’t detract from the overall value and unless already tested,  get the wiring checked or changed by a professional before use. Chances are the fittings inside may be nearly 60 years old and neglected.  Also while stomping the concrete yourself at fairs is fun, if you are looking to invest serious money then purchasing from a specialist or doing your homework first is important.  As the lamp market has exploded in the last few years more and more murky copies of the desirable pieces have emerged, either as out and out fakes or via re-issues. It is quite common for lamps to be entirely unmarked as retailers often didn’t want their designers to get more praise than them and by their nature many were made from materials easy to copy. Its a sad fact of life but sometimes the extra few pounds spent with a specialist can save later heart-ache.

Incorporating the look:

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When it comes to mid-century lamps the trick is to be brave as even the most uninspiring sideboard or corner can be completely converted through one dominant light. Like miniature sculptures these objects were designed with space in mind so let them breathe and try not to clutter things around them. This will allow the shadows and colours to play naturally together as intended. Finally and most importantly don’t be scared of colour. Although we tend to think now that only certain shades and colour hues can work together on objects, that’s not how they saw it back in the 1950s. It was a time of boundless excitement and possibility, so go on, embrace some of that madness in your own home…………happy lamp hunting!

1950s rattan lamp photo attribution: by Wicker Paradise; oil lamp photo attribution: by Roy Brazier; Raak UFO lamp attribution: by mararie; Tretchikoff Style Lamp attrribution: by Sam Howzit

The Best v. The Rest………

Telephone bidding, Sotheby's, A Joy Forever

Across every collecting field and in every auction house, there is one trend that keeps on getting stronger- when it comes to prices it’s very much best v. the rest. Each week the press is full of choice items that blow through their estimates to set new industry records and while a few successful bidders choose to remain nameless, others are happy to be recognised and lauded as the new champions of cultural preservation. The wild prices reached for the top pieces, while seemingly grotesque to the average layman, are probably not as frivolous as they first appear since they pay both for the item and its ongoing publicity.  Our best objects, by transcending the utility for which they were conceived, are able to break free of the standard pricing shackles that hold down the rest. Once freed, how can you put a price on an icon?

As someone who considers themselves much lower down the antiques food chain, it’s perhaps easy to become jaded with the celebrity-style coverage that these choice items get, particularly as the rest (that were made with as much heart and have endured as precarious a survival) slip sheepishly along the bottom. Despite this, the trend is a positive sign that the antiques marketplace is slowly strengthening- perhaps from the top down, but strengthening all the same.  Headline items re-affirm both the cultural and financial importance of our material past and when I hear advice against buying antiques as investments, I feel a slight twinge inside. Compared to your new car that halves in value the second you sign the paperwork, or your vacuum cleaner that is only worth £1 at a boot sale one year later, antiques are actually a safe bet. Ok, some are a better investment than others and as the smallprint says ‘prices can go down as well as up’, but no-one trades in stocks and shares without knowing the risks involved. Antique items that currently make the most are those that have both real investment potential and a weighty pedigree.

Some possible causes for the trend?

Growing polarity is of course a wider cultural phenomenon, but within the antiques field what are some possible causes?  Certainly austerity has affected the spending ability of many and antiques remain a non-essential luxury asset. A person who has £1000 in the bank and invests £200 in an antique is proportionally investing far more than one who has £1million and spends £30,000 on an item. From this perspective wouldn’t it be great if we took more effort praising the small spender as well for their dedication to the antiques cause?

Who wants to buy a horse?

To those with money to invest antiques remain an appealing addition to their portfolio. As banks continue to offer smaller returns, tangible items like vintage cars and wrist watches have both seen a rapid rise in prices over the last few years, not only because they affirm a ‘luxury’ lifestyle but also because retailers and sellers have been savvy enough to prove the investment potential in them.

Beyond the rich v. poor issue, there are perhaps more systemic changes that have shifted the playing field as well. By all accounts antique collecting in the 1900s, 1950s or even 1980s was a very different experience to today if only based on quantity. With new collectors embracing vintage and retro items alongside genuine antique objects, the sheer quantity of what’s available has jumped exponentially. Our mass-produced society of the last 50 years has created a sea of new ‘things’ to hoard, and with the inclusion of vintage items and the easier direct access to objects via the internet, the flood-gates have indeed opened. Added to this the current trend to upcycle or repaint low grade items (which is laudable in principle), many old things have remained in circulation that otherwise would probably have been discarded. Thus commenting without prejudice, our current fashions somewhat override the laws of natural selection and somewhat validate our desire to only embrace the best.

Beside the issues of volume, the way we seek and sell our collectables has also pushed the poles further apart. Publicity is key to a good sale and in our media driven world, there are more ways than ever to stand out and get noticed. Although sadly I don’t have statistics to back it up, I’m sure armchair bidding, TV shows and social media have all enticed many new people into the bidding ring, which in turn raises the potential spending power of the ring. Since most will be using the same channels of specialist books and the internet to decide how desirable an item is, what we are exposed to matters. Books tend to show only the best, and in the same vein, the framework for the search engine google (as well as many others) is based on showing the most popular results first. Since few of us ever click past the first few pages, our research therefore only exposes us to the same few pages as everyone else. As marketing people will tell you, exposure and desirability are directly linked.

Finally, some of the price polarity may also be down to the emerging economies and the nouveau riche. Just as the Russian surge before, Asian collectors in particular place greater financial value on antique objects as a sign of social identity than we currently do in the West. Perhaps we’ve been over-saturated in this country with historical objects and become blase, I don’t know, but to see others spending deeply and with conviction can I’m sure inspire onlookers to do the same.

Many more factors will be influencing the current ‘best v. rest’ trend, but one thing is for sure- its not changing any time soon. In some sense the growing polarity is creating a new hybrid of antique comprising only the nearly-unobtainable few, and perhaps a new word will be needed soon that describes this star-studded sub-category?

Final Word……..

Growth at the top can only have any long term benefit if we are able to shore up the bottom as well. Therefore, the next time you are in an auction and you see someone nervously win an item for £30, give them a clap too, they might be doing the antiques industry more service than you know!

Telephone bidder photo attribution: by Neil Cummings; teddybear horse photo attribution: by rochelle hartman

For the love of Steampunk…….

Steampunk Guitar

Anyone who regularly scours shops and markets, both real and online will have spotted already more and more unusual things turning up refashioned from common objects. From the creatively adept to the downright bizarre, this current fashion called steampunk is another one of those trends pushing the boundary of what constitutes and remains an antique as while the item is technically a newly created piece of art, it often incorporates older antique and vintage elements. To look at it another way- steampunk is for antiques what hotrods are for vintage cars. Although a more extreme form of upcycling, the two should not really be confused.

Steampunk Worlds Fair

The term ‘steampunk’ delineates a loose lifestyle movement that was envisioned in the 1980s but has blossomed within the last few years. Born from people’s love of period Sci-fi it looks fondly on works by HG Wells and Jules Verne as well as more recent Hollywood blockbusters movies such as the Justice League and Wild,Wild West for inspiration.  Replicating both real and pseudo- technological inventions of the late 19th Century (during the age of steam) its been a very creative trend allowing people to span the differences between art and history (or antiques).  Steampunk extends the art of upcycling through the power of its imagination. Furniture, clocks, tools, lamps and a whole host of technological landfill take on a new twist as industrial elements like copper piping and sheet metal are welded brutally but passionately together. Bits of trumpet, lamp, car parts, leather chair (infact almost anything) is remodelled in the name of steampunk into strange and querky objects even Ronald Searle would have been proud of.

Steampunk Sewing Machine

When it is done well its can lift the curiosity of even the most weary soul and a pub I recently entered near Battersea had their walls covered with copper piping that wiggled and connected to probably the empty shell of possible contraptions or connected light bulbs. Infact it was this place that changed my mind about the whole art form. In such an environment as this, staged, polished and carefully lit it all looked fantastic and suited the place immensely. On a less intense end of the spectrum I have seen smaller objects at fairs fashioned out of the most random objects from trumpets to sewing machines, and the point of it all is not that they are just objects given an unusual twist and sent on their way, but that they are often tortured into a new identity.

Steampunk USB memory stick

In a world that loves novelty and a talking point  these objects certainly deliver and even a small injection will get reactions every time. In many ways that’s the whole point and if it puts a smile on your face well done to it I say. No-one pretends these are little more than the hollow fantasy of Star-Trek phasers and none suggest they are meaningful antiques either. As a fad and a probably short term trend I’m all for it- why not. Let those creative genius’ take our antique scraps and do with them what they may…..believe me we have plenty of over-spill in the antiques trade to go round.

Guitar Photo attribution: by Rob Lee; Fancy Dress photo attribution: by Steampunk Family the von hedwigs;  Sewing Machine Photo attribution: by Becky Stern; Memory Stick Photo attribution: by brett jordan