How do you unearth a future design classic, a piece of furniture — old or new — that will resonate in years to come and, with luck, keep on increasing in value?
We’re in the age of cheap mass production but in reaction to that there is growing consumer concern about the provenance and longevity of the products we choose to live with. Finding pieces that are designed and made in a way that will stand the test of time matters.
Paul Middlemiss, a British furniture dealer and founder of online retailer Merchant & Found, who also sources vintage items for restaurants and hotels, is in the business of finding future classics. For him that means “well-designed, well-crafted objects made of good materials, which for whatever reason have fallen out of favour for the moment or are under the radar”.
As a former buying director at The Conran Shop and Habitat, Middlemiss has an expert eye for spotting high-quality pieces and trends to come. He is the man who found the vintage furniture for London’s Sessions Arts Club and its upcoming Scottish outpost Boath House, near Nairn. He also supplies Balthazar and the Minetta Tavern in New York, scouring the world hunting for overlooked resources, such as 1950s bentwood dining chairs by the French maker Baumann. Right now, he’s looking further east for undiscovered gems, to Poland and the Czech Republic.
“Over the years I’ve bought a lot of stuff in Scandinavia, all the mid-century Danish design, the Hans Wegners and the Finn Juhls,” he says. “It’s still amazing, but it’s now a ridiculous price and other brands are reproducing them. The old pieces coming out of eastern Europe are as well made, but by designers we just don’t know about. As people increasingly can’t afford the Finn Juhls, this stuff is going to be really sought after.”
Fewer pieces by eastern European designers found their way into western Europe during the cold war era. “But back in the 1930s and just after the war those countries were important craft-makers,” says Middlemiss. “There was lots of glass production in the Czech Republic. Their crystal and chandeliers and incredible mouth-blown lights competed with Murano from Italy. I’ve found a lot of stunning 1950s and 60s lighting.”
Middlemiss also points to cabinet work by Jiří Jiroutek, a furniture and interior designer at the Czech manufacturer Interier Praha in the mid-century. “The colour, the cabinet work, it’s just quality and would fit any modern interior. A second-hand Wegner sideboard will cost thousands, but a Jiroutek will be between £500 and £1,000.”
For Adam Hills, co-founder with his wife Maria Speake of the London-based salvage and interior design studio Retrouvius, deciding what constitutes a future gem means first identifying what does not. “Something made in poor materials — plastics that degrade and become brittle and crack. Chipboard that gets damp and swells and deforms. Thinly made things that will break when you sit on them,” he says.
He recognises fashion cycles in furniture shifting every 20 years so he pre-empts the curve, getting in ahead of mainstream tastes. “So now we should be looking at things from the 2000s, although admittedly that seems very early even for me,” he says.
He recently did a clearance from a high-end Mayfair jewellery company which had relocated. “It had been kitted out by a top architect and interior designer 20 years ago. I bought all the furniture; eight vanloads. There was almost no one else in the trade who wanted to buy it because it was just seen as being tired and unfashionable, but that’s about the right time for me to go in,” he says.
“For a lot of people this stuff is at its lowest ebb, but my self-appointed remit is to put things back into circulation, not just shrug my shoulders and condemn them. We have to find a way of reusing good things well.”
To find similarly overlooked pieces you need to head to overlooked places and do the hard work yourself. “If you go to the antique shops in Tetbury in Gloucestershire or Church Street and Pimlico Road in London, of course you’re not going to find a future classic,” Hills says.
“You’ll find things that have already reached the pinnacle of their value. So you have to go to the places I call ‘at source’: the house clearance jobs, the office furniture shops, antiques fairs and auctions. If you manage to make friends with your local house clearance person that’s the best source because everything will be completely fresh and uncurated and you can sweep in.”
One piece Middlemiss always finds challenging is the table. “It’s very easy to buy 500 old chairs but you’ll never find that many good old tables,” he says. “Restaurants and hotels always have fairly basic tables that are easily replaceable. You don’t get large numbers of good tables in a church or schools. It tends to be a private residence that has a beautiful table and that’s why the French farmhouse table was so popular. But they’ve pretty much all gone.”
His solution? To commission a contemporary designer, Simon Pengelly, formerly of Habitat, to design a new one. “He’s made us a lovely oak, trestle-based table [£1,200; merchantandfound.com], a timeless piece that will work with any vintage chairs. It’s produced in Romania from local oak, sustainably forested. I’ve got one as my desk in the office and I’ve just sent one over to an architect in America.”
What about today’s other designers and makers? For Matthew Benjamin, head of operations for London-based interior designer Hollie Bowden, a future hit needs to say something about the time in which it is made. “The Eames lounge chair is an iconic piece of design because it was a new take on that machine-age of production,” he says. “A more comfortable, friendlier-looking design that really said something about that American, middle-class moment of plenty and consumption after the second world war.”
Benjamin sees the interesting themes of our own times as being sustainability and the circular economy, as well as a response to the classic designs that have become overexposed through social media platforms.
“The way images circulate, designs get catapulted into the algorithm, everyone sees it and even though it’s a great piece, it’s not special any more. Today’s collectible design is a reaction to that. The makers are doing highly worked individual, special or dramatic pieces going back to more rarefied modes of production from furniture design history.”
He and Bowden often look for new designers at galleries, such as Fumi in Mayfair, London. “Fumi is a great place for collectible design. We bought an amazing piece from there recently by Casey McCafferty, an incredible hand-carved screen,” says Bowden. Simply called Screen, it is made from ash, sawdust, clay pigment and polymer binder.
“We also like Radford Gallery for up-and-coming names that are slightly more affordable.” (The gallery, run by interior designer Max Radford, doesn’t have a permanent London home but can be found on Instagram @theradfordgallery. Its next exhibition is in April.)
Bowden cites Lewis Kemmenoe’s Patchwork Cabinet (“a new take on marquetry that is like post-punk-DIY-studio-design”); Carsten in der Elst’s Graywacke Chair 05 and lamps by Matthew Verdon, made from hemp and bamboo, as contemporary pieces she thinks will stand the test of time.
Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum in London, says the traditional concept of a design classic should be challenged. “It goes back to Dieter Rams [the German mid-century industrial designer associated with Braun and Vitsoe] and how he defined the essence of Modernist product design. It was very much about functionality versus aesthetic. Now, I find that idea quite rooted in a conformist perspective,” she says.
“What I’m interested in now is radical design and how it reflects the value of our times. For me good design is not just about form and function but its broader purpose and values. Today it needs to meet the social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges we’re knee-deep in and are only going to heighten through the course of this century.”
When a cultural institution acquires a work it is providing a stamp of approval for future generations — one that goes beyond the fast-moving trends precipitated by social-media approval. The Design Museum has been broadening its collection to reflect a new and wider definition of design, looking to those cultures and people who have been historically under-represented and securing their work for future generations.
For example, Khanchandani says, “The BLM movement has sparked new consciousness about design and architecture being white male privileged and has resulted in the emergence of alternative architectures and designs.”
A recent acquisition is the Jupiter chair by Mac Collins, a British designer from Nottingham who is of Jamaican descent. “His work draws on his heritage and is informed by stories of his Caribbean family and elders,” says Khanchandani. “It creates this really interesting hybrid aesthetic that positions his work within the African diaspora.” It’s also a beautiful piece of furniture that could work in any setting.
The notion of individual taste is key, too. “I like personal expression of design in the home,” she says. “I think John Soane demonstrated the importance of that when he created his house.” But that can be something of a gamble, as Hills will testify, because the aesthetic value of a future classic might at this stage be only in the eye of one beholder.
“I found a John Makepeace chair recently,” says Hills. “In its day, the Parnham school [founded by Makepeace in 1977] was really expensive but was a very particular style — everyone got slightly icked-out by the fussiness. Even the person selling it to me said, ‘This is one of the ugliest pieces of furniture I’ve ever had.’ But it was an incredible quality piece and it did find someone who appreciated it.”
In Khanchandani’s home, a daybed by Hem — the Swedish design company that describes its products as “furniture for the auction houses of tomorrow” — sits alongside a colourful Bold Chair by Paris-based Moustache. “But I also have my grandma’s crystal there,” she says. “All of these things mean something to me. They’re an expression of who I am.”
If finances allowed, she’d also throw in a Soap Table by the Dutch-Kiwi designer Sabine Marcelis. “I just love the colour and the texture. How it feels contemporary but organic. But will it be a design classic? I don’t know.”
In the business of predicting the future, the uncertainty is all part of the thrill.