Here’s How to Buy An Investment You Can Literally Live On

Since this February marks my fortieth year in the furniture industry I thought it appropriate to discuss my observations over the years and in particular the surprisingly steady value increases I have witnessed for authentic modern furniture, especially those pieces considered to be, or are destined to become “classics”.

Most of us understand the concept of investing in great pieces of Art and Antique Furniture, however the idea of modern furniture as an investment is less understood, not only for its quantum value but also for the consistency of growth as an investment.

Eames-Soft-Pad-loungers

One of my 40 year old Eames Soft Pad loungers (1969) and Nelson Side Table (1954) with a favourite Bordeaux (2004).

Art, for example, has emerged as a new asset class for a well-diversified portfolio however there are differing views on returns on investment. Whereas Art advisors have traditionally touted an average 10% p.a. return over the past 40 years based on the Blouin Art Sales Index (BASI) the reality may be far less. Recent research shows that the true annual return over 40 years is closer to 6.5% p.a.

Whereas Art prices tend to fluctuate with economic cycles and relative popularity of artists, furniture appears to be far more stable as an investment. After all you cannot sit on a painting but you can certainly relax in a chair and fall in love with the patina of the leather or a few historical marks on the timber. Scratch or chip a sculpture or painting, however and you may destroy considerable re-sale value.

When I return home and look at my Charles Sofas each night or my Eames Soft Pad Armchairs next to my Nelson Side tables I get a strong feeling of love and awe just like I would from a piece of fine art. I cannot help thinking that the gods of design that created them (Antonio Citterio, Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson) really knew what they were doing when they created these master classics.

My 40 year old Eames soft pads are my favourites. They are a little battered and bruised but the vintage leather patina is stunning. I sometimes display two of them at the Matisse showroom and I was surprised to be offered $5000 each for them a few years ago – considerably more than the price of new ones. I did not have the heart to tell the collector they had cost me $150 each but was adamant that they were not for sale.

This led me to realise another reason furniture may outperform art is that there is always a current retail price that becomes a sort of bench mark for value. The older the piece the higher the differential above current retail becomes.

This of course presupposes that the piece is authentic (made by the manufacturer authorised to do so by the designer) and that the designer has, by reputation, become a master or maestro through his/her own body of work. Naturally we must beware of replica copies, the furniture equivalents of Art forgeries, and know that these replicas are worthless and inevitably end up in the landfill.

To become an investor requires knowledge and it pays to learn the basics of design history, which designers are important, what their furniture style looks like and who are their influencers.

To become an investor requires knowledge and it pays to learn the basics of design history, which designers are important, what their furniture style looks like and who are their influencers. Learn who the authorised manufacturers and local agents are and if looking for second hand items, attend auctions or follow auction house price records. Also know where to look for serial numbers, dates and signatures.

Go to reputable showrooms that sell authentic furniture or auction previews where you can browse and develop your own tastes. Staff are always happy to help and advise on designer reputations and long term value. At Matisse, our own Caroline Montague is often referred to as New Zealand’s “encyclopedia of design” and she is always available to help, advise and confirm authenticity.
It is also interesting to pick an era that interests you. Modernism, for example, produced a wealth of genius in the first half of the 20th century through the works of greats like Alvar Aalto, Jean Prouvé, Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Gerrit Rietveld, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Bauhaus movement.

You may however prefer Mid Century Design when the great guiding stars of Charles and Ray Eames led the way ably supported by George Nelson, Harry Bertoia, Arne Jacobsen and the emerging Japanese masters – Isamu Noguchi and Sori Yanagi

Then of course the sixties hit us like a bombshell of radical music, fashion and flower power. Pop design took its inspiration from advertising, television, comic book art from the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and pop art like Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbells Soup Tins.

Then of course the sixties hit us like a bombshell of radical music, fashion and flower power.

Furniture manufacturing was revolutionised in the 1960’s thanks to the availability of new materials like cold formed foam and plastics such as polyethylene and the new stars like Gaetano Pesce, Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Movement, Verner Panton, Joe Colombo and my personal favourite, Pierre Paulin took full advantage of these materials.

It is also important to recognise the work of a small number of dedicated quality driven manufacturers who innovated new ideas and materials as well as nurturing young up and coming designers and supported their sometimes radical ideas. In particular, the efforts of Herman Miller Inc, B&B Italia, Vitra, Cassina, Poltrona Frau, Cappellini, Artek, Edra, Moroso, Artifort and Classicon must be congratulated for their unwavering support.

Whilst the Memphis designers were experimenting with outrageous patterns and decoration, other designers were experimenting with more traditional industrial materials like glass, steel and concrete and casting and forming them into fantastic new furniture forms. The work of Danny Lane, Ron Arad, Marc Newson and Tom Dixon ushered in the Post Modern era of the late 70’s and 80’s with their “Salvage” furniture produced either as one offs or as limited editions due to the painstaking work by the designer to construct them.

One of my greatest regrets, on visiting Ron Arad’s start up factory in Chalk Farm London around 1989, was failing to purchase a piece called “Big Easy” in polished stainless steel for a few thousand dollars. One sold at auction in 2012 for over $160,000.

One of my greatest regrets, on visiting Ron Arad’s start up factory in Chalk Farm London around 1989, was failing to purchase a piece called “Big Easy” in polished stainless steel for a few thousand dollars. One sold at auction in 2012 for over $160,000.

Lounger-stainless-steel

The Soft Big Easy chair (1989) by Ron Arad for Moroso – A comfortable reconfiguration of the original stainless steel limited editions.

The great thing about these designers is that they have since released their designs to reputable manufacturers like Moroso for mass production in cold formed foam and upholstered to make them available to us all. The Big Easy for example now retails currently for $13,100 upholstered in Kvadrat Divina.

The Post Modern era introduced us to today’s other new legends such as Jasper Morrison, Vico Magistretti, Toshiyuki Kita, Masanori Umeda, Naoto Fukasawa, Marcel Wanders, Philippe Starck, Jean-Marie Massaud, Piero Lissoni, Mario Bellini, Patricia Urquiola, Konstantin Grcic, Ross Lovegrove and my personal “god” of design – Antonio Citterio.

I have personally experienced a memorable 40 years in the design industry meeting many of the great designers mentioned above and becoming close friends with some. I consider pieces designed by all of the above to be bankable as furniture investments that will grow in value over time, some greater than others.

The important thing is that whilst these furniture masterpieces are appreciating in value you will gradually fall in love with them. It is highly likely that you will never wish to part with them preferring, as I will, to pass them down through the generations as heirlooms in the safe knowledge that there will always be an excellent secondary market for authentic modern furniture by these classic masters of design.

Matisse International Design matisse.co.nz


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