Design: the return of wood



At auctions, collectors of top-end design are showing a distinct penchant for highly decorative furniture produced in very limited editions, or even unique pieces.

Alongside this trend, the bidding is also particularly strong for works that emphasise a dialogue with nature. Such “natural” inspiration had its heyday just over a century ago with Art nouveau, which appeared in 1890 and died out as the First World War began. This aesthetic was a major influence in the works of creators like Hector GUIMARD, Alphonse MUCHA, and Émile GALLÉ. The increasing rarity of works by these artists is pushing their prices inexorably upwards. Thus, on 9 June 2010, a small Table d’appoint created in 1909 by Hector Guimard, estimated at €15,000, fetched €160,000 at Claude Aguttes; another small table, Poppy No. 26 by Gustav STICKLEY (circa 1901), estimated at $20,000 – $30,000, sold for $145,000 (nearly €100,000) on 17 December 2009 at Sotheby’s. Another example with Louis MAJORELLE – whose pedestal tables, armchairs and clocks can be acquired at auctions for between €1,000 and €3,000: on 24 October 2009 at Sotheby’s, his Table aux nénuphars, estimated at £45,000 – £55,000, fetched £190,000 (€206,700).

George Nakashima vs. Hugo França
Nowadays, the ‘return to nature’ is taking the form of a strong preference for craftsmanship on the one hand, and on the other, a new generation of designers for whom nature and the environment is a primary source of inspiration. Demand for works created in wood has produced excellent auction results for the American George NAKASHIMA and, more recently, the Brazilian Hugo FRANÇA (born in 1954). The only common factor between the two artists is their work with wood, carving furniture straight from tree trunks and taking care to keep the irregularities and natural characteristics of the wood.
George Nakashima is an internationally recognised designer with a solid auction record to his name: already ten results above the €100,000 line generated between 2007 and 2009. In 2010 his best result has been for a walnut Console created in 1989 which fetched twice its estimate at $90,000. Today, some of his chairs can be acquired for as little as $1,500; but 20% of his works fetch between $5,000 and $10,000 on average and 36% fetch between $10,000 and $100,000.

Relatively recently, Nakashima’s approach to woodwork has received competition from the Brazilian designer Hugo França who made a strong impression at the Art Basel Miami fair and whose works only arrived on the secondary market in 2009. In terms of price, Hugo França is not yet into six-figures; but some of his results are on a par with those of the master of traditional Japanese cabinet-making. França’s Ashaki bench for example fetched £12,000 ($19,100), equivalent to the starting price for Nakashima’s famous Conoid bench. The Brazilian has therefore made a very strong entry into the auction market: none of his pieces has failed to sell and his Shukura coffee table, a work created just last year, tripled its estimate in May 2010 when it fetched £55,000 (approximately $79,400).

Between experimental exhibitions like Tokujin YOSHIOKA’s Second Nature (Tokyo, October 2008 – January 2009) and the bio-mimetic research of the new generation, the dialogue between design and nature would appear to have a very bright future.