Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner knew that one of his designs – a sleek, sandy chaise-lounge, made from the wood of oak, teak and cane – would one day sell for $70,000 at an auction house in Chicago, he might be disappointed to find that the modern equivalent of his original 1950’s cost-minded consumer would be more than alienated, budget-wise.
On the other hand, if Wegner – often considered by many to be the star of Danish modern design – knew the cost of everything else on the bidding list, he might feel better about his relative affordability on the antique and auction circuit.
The early 1990’s marked a revival in modern furniture design and Wegner along with his fellow big name contemporaries Arne Jacobson, Borge Mogensen, Fin Juhl and the godfather of the period, Kaare Klint, saw spikes in appreciation for work that was always sought after.
“The whole high-modern revival, I don’t know what precipitated it,” said Tonje Snow, who works for Skokie’s Scandinavian Design. “It’s just a lot of simple designs that are also versatile – like a clean black dress.”
But according to antique dealers and modern design shop owners around the city, only in the last couple years has the whole spectrum of Danish design – from the big names to the unknowns – really taken off in popularity.
“People have started to re-appreciate this style of furniture,” said Tom Clark, who owns the West Loop modern design store Modern Times with his partner Martha Torno. “Danish furniture reflects a lot of craftsmanship; a soft tactile feel and warm to the touch. I think that’s the kind of aesthetic that people are coming back to these days.”
When most mid-century European countries were rejecting history with the use metal and loud colors and angles, Danish designers stayed true to their country’s strong tradition in craftsmanship and cabinetry while approaching the modern aesthetic. A common link between pieces in the period was the use of fine woods to make sleek designs that are also comfortable and user-friendly.
“There has been a turn back to luxury. While these designs aren’t per se luxurious, the use of natural wood is,” said Richard Wright, owner of the Chicago modern design auction house that bears his own name. “In the era where things are becoming more hard, more plastic and more shiny there is a deep appeal to this type of furniture – simple forms executed in beautiful wood.”
Chicagoan Don Schmatlz who owns an eBay store and auction Web site for mid-century design called Archifresh and also owns several pieces of Danish furniture in his own home, has noted that the media is also starting to use Danish design more than ever before.
“You see more and more television shows and commercials with sets that have incorporated Danish design,” Schmaltz said. “Like an Arne Jacobson ‘egg-chair’ will be featured in an I-Pod commercial.”
But, what is really significant about the marketplace for this style of design – and may be a reason for its recent rise – is that even 50 years after the period’s heyday, Danish furniture is still a cost-to-quality bargain and in different ways for two different types of consumers.
Firstly, almost all of Chicago’s modern-design and antique dealers will tell you that for the average, style-minded buyer – someone not looking to collect but rather to buy chic, well crafted furniture – going Danish can be very cost effective because the difference in quality between the expensive established designers and the affordable unknowns is slight.
“There are probably five to 10 big names and once you get out of that realm you still find great stuff,” said Andrew Hollingworth, who owns his self-named River North store and is publishing a book on the period. “You can get very good values for pieces that are as nice as the ones with names, sometimes even nicer.”
“If it’s Fin Juhl, a piece could be $10,000, but if it’s by Bjørgen Hurgelschmursen, it might be 500 dollars, and the quality might not vary at all,” said Clark.
Chicago has a lot of options for this sort of bargain hunting. In addition to Modern Times and Andrew Hollingsworth – which sell modern pieces ranging in prices – the city’s antique malls often have a wealth of lesser known designers and cabinet-makers. Such hotspots include the Lincoln Antique Mall, the Broadway Antique Market and the Ravenswood Antique Mart. But, timing is everything, as most of these shops do not hang on to Danish work for very long anymore.
On the other end of the consumer spectrum, if you are someone who is looking to collect mid-century work as an investment or are just working with a larger budget for interior design, the higher end Danish pieces will still be a relative steal.
“Compared to the cost of comparable pieces in French design or Italian design, Scandinavian is rather accessible,” Wright said. “French and Italian mid-century designs have sold for over a million. I’d be hard pressed to find any [Danish furniture] that has sold over 100k.”
But that doesn’t mean your investment won’t go anywhere. “I would argue that we haven’t seen the top prices of those materials being reached yet,” said Wright.
While it can be difficult to explain the relative low price in the high-end Danish Modern, dealers point to the original intention of most Danish designers: to produce affordable pieces for the average, urban consumer. Another explanation is the Danes’ restrained design, which compared to even the more colorful and angular Swedish furniture focuses more on craftsmanship and quality of material over exclamations in style.
“[The high-end price difference] is rather curious in some ways because [Danish Furniture] is extremely well made and built to last,” Hollingsworth said. “I think part of it may be, is that the Danes were more restrained in terms of form. It’s almost shaker-like in terms of its simplicity.”
That simplicity and restraint would seem to be a by-product of some Danish designers’ primary intention to design for comfort and convenience as well as creating something aesthetically pleasing.
According to Hollingsworth, Klint’s brilliance was the standard he set in the 1920’s, which combined his scholar-like knowledge of both cabinetmaking and ergonomics into his work. When he built chairs, he took into consideration the reaching arm across the table. When designing cabinets, he used mathematics to explore the different arrangements for efficient storage of plates, china, and cutlery.
The Danes also were one of the first to use an approach now made famous by Ikea. They used what’s called “knock-down” furniture in order to send their pieces overseas and keep the prices affordable. Archifresh’s Schmaltz – who was first inspired by furniture through Wegner’s famous breakdown “safari chair” – finds a philosophical pleasantry in this aspect of the period. “I seem to collect items that can be easily dismantled and are nomadic in nature,” Schmaltz said. “I like the idea of folding a chair down and moving easily and being able to lift it, taking it away as needed or putting it up.”
Hollingsworth likes Danish furniture mostly because it plays well with others.
“I like the transitional quality of it,” he said. “The fact that it marries very well with other styles and is very eclectic. I have everything from contemporary Italian in my home to 18th century French. And so – what I like – is its sort of timelessness in its form and purpose.”
The only issue now is when the bargain well will dry up. Many designers and cabinet-makers who were once unknown in the United States are becoming more popular by name, which only means higher prices. But, there’s still time. Many will tell you Danish furniture hasn’t quite reached its peak.
“At the beginning, people were grabbing whatever they could. But, that’s changed,” Hollingsworth said. “As time has evolved [low-cost] pieces are becoming harder and harder to find.”