Questions often arise regarding originals, reproductions, and licenses when discussing modern classic furniture. Today all furniture manufacturers/distributors are marketing new reproductions of modern classic furniture. It does not matter if it has a stamp on the frame or they state they carry a license. New modern classic furniture comes straight out of a box completely upholstered and assembled with the latest and newest materials that are available to furniture suppliers in today’s world. It is this exact point that lends to a discussion regarding originals and licensed modern classic furniture.
The modern classic furniture masters continually experimented with shapes, sizes and materials for most of their lifetimes. They constantly changed the designs based on the materials of the time and to meet the demands of the marketplace (colors, shading, comfort, etc.). The modern classic furniture reproduction houses that continued to manufacture the furniture after the masters had passed on also continued to develop/modify these designs. For example, today polyurethane foam has replaced horsehair, and sophisticated chroming has, for the most part, replaced stainless steel. The reason for these changes have been costs, quality of materials, comfort and ease of manufacturing.
The higher quality and lower costs of materials today were not available when these classics were designed. One key example is that most original seating were upholstered in fabric. Today leather has become the standard for most of the classics seating due to the increase in the consumption of meat over the last 40 years. Leather is widely used in several industries today compared to the 20’s and 30’s.
Reproduction houses that hold a license are permitted to manufacture an item based on the original dimensions and materials if they choose to do so. However, no one reproduces modern classics furniture exactly from the original designs. Knoll states the original Ludwig Mies van der Rohe seating collection of the Brnos & Barcelonas must be stainless steel, however they currently produce the Barcelona in chrome with an option for stainless steel. Which option is the original?
If you look at some vintage books on the masters it will be evident that the style and shapes of the upholstery has changed dramatically from the modern classic furniture originals. The pitch of the backs was off by several inches. The inner materials of the cushions were puffy and uncomfortable. All modern classic furniture reproduction houses, even the ones that state they carry the license, have dramatically changed the specifications to meet today’s standards.
In the discussion of licensing, many manufacturers/distributors have given up their rights in renewing their licensing agreements with the estates or with the law firms that collect for an estate that may not exist any longer, yet they continue to produce modern classic furniture. In the case of Eileen Gray, she had no family or an estate when she passed away in 1976. Classicon of Europe states that they carry the license for her collections. If they are in fact actually paying out a fee, it would be most likely be to a law firm or an acquaintance that was self-appointed. Eileen Gray died when she was 102 years old. My guess is that her associate or acquaintance that may have sold the license for her pieces is also long gone. So who is collecting these license fees?
Today you can find many original/vintage moderns in auction houses such as the Wright, LA Modern, or Treadway Toomey. Original/vintage modern classic furniture can be priced as much as 50 times the cost of a reproduction, depending on the materials, the date of manufacturing, if it was touched up etc… When purchasing a vintage modern classic from an auction house or an estate sale, you are investing in a piece of history. That piece will hold its value and most likely increase dramatically in value over the years.
The auction house, at times, will sell modern classic furniture reproductions that are 40 or 50 years old. If you compare the price of these auctioned modern classic furniture reproductions, they sell for close to the same amount that you can purchase a new reproduction sold in today’s market. Reproductions do not increase in value. Original/vintage pieces do increase in value. If you are interested in buying a modern classic as an investment, make sure it is an original based on Webster’s definition and not a furniture manufactures statement that they are making “originals”.