PART 1: How to Buy a Vintage Mid-Century Chair?

Welcome to the first blog post on the site! Yes #1! Whoohooooo...

So I thought what better way to start than a designer's guide to selecting and buying vintage mid-century chairs.

 FJ136 by Finn Juhl, image by House of Finn Juhl

FJ136 by Finn Juhl, image by House of Finn Juhl

I've always been inspired by vintage furniture, Chinese antiques, Indian wood carvings. Where given a choice, I would choose a used and well-loved over a shiny brand new. Any day. One golden rule of decor, that at least one thing in the room should be old/vintage/antique. The other rule is to always have one hand-made item. Pottery, wooden bowls, macrame give an artisan touch. This visceral quality of imperfection, against the backdrop of a perfectly clean and finished space, is nourishing to the soul. Patina in brass lamps or used leather chairs, create a perceptive depth. And depth stirs emotion and brings soul to a room. Striking that balance of aged texture and vintage proportions is a lot easier than we designers like our clients to think! 

Chairs are superb design vehicles. They are functional since we need them in practically every room of the home, except maybe the bathroom, where I have yet to install a vintage WC. Never say never! The point is, we need an average of 5-10 seats in an average home, including a sofa, an armchair or 2, dining chairs, study swivel, patio chairs, stools, benches, etc. 

 Pierre Jeanneret x Stephane Parmentier. (Image: Jean-Francois Jaussaud)

Pierre Jeanneret x Stephane Parmentier. (Image: Jean-Francois Jaussaud)

With their various forms, styles, materials, shapes and purposes, chairs are GIANT opportunities for injecting some flair and fun, hence my deep and long affair with them! I have also recently discovered a great love for OLD and USED mid-century classics and no one made chairs like they did in the 50s and 60s. Milo Baughman, Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen are just a handful of talented furniture designers who produced many of the classics we love dearly. Many furniture manufacturers like Knoll, Carl Hansen and Vitra continue producing these quality beauties today. But once you have seen an old refurbished Hans Wegner chair, it's hard to go new again. So where does one start? If you just finished remodeling your home, or simply furniture hunting, and looking for some amazing dining chairs, should you consider buying some vintage ones? My answer is below. READ on to find out how to choose and buy a vintage Mid-Century chair?

1. HOMEWORK

Before heading out to the local junk store, do all your homework. Please refrain yourself from pop into a yard thinking a gem awaits you before knowing exactly what's going to work. Avoid any impulse buys so plan, measure, check, check and check before buying. Where will these chairs reside? In the living room or occasional bench by the entryway? What other furniture pieces are there? Will they complement each other or clash? Mid-century pieces are classical and many will go with contemporary furniture but some combinations are harder to pull off. For example, pairing an upholstered Louis XV tufted chair with a mid-century sofa is tricky. Not impossible but requires finesse. Back to the list again. How much space do you have for the chair? E.g. in a dining setting, could you do 8 or would 6 chairs be more comfortable? How would a pair in the living room look? And vitally, how high or low are the other seating elements in relation? I'm a stickler for coordinating the seating heights of the sofas and chairs and coffee tables. Don't forget the side tables too. Another thing to consider, is the location of the chairs. Sunlight is not your friend and many vintage chairs fade badly with too much glare, especially in our tropical heat.

Once you've settled on some basics, now the fun begins in choosing that wonderful vintage chair! 

2. DESIGN & STYLE

Identify the style of chair that suits your needs best.

 Upholstered Platner chair courtesy of Madeline Weinrib

Upholstered Platner chair courtesy of Madeline Weinrib

 Image by Unknown

Image by Unknown

Will it be upholstered in fabric or leather? Leathers in tan and black bear a classical, perhaps masculine feel whilst abstract prints on a fabric chair convey fun and whimsy. This is an opportune time to add that our perception of a chair can be greatly altered with different fabrics and finishes. What is presented in a designer furniture store is only one of the multitude of options often available. I guess that's my job to distill those options for my clients but it's a nice reminder to know that we have options.

What type of materials do you like? Many of the best designs in Mid- century modern chairs are in wood, often teak wood if they are original 1950/60s. Shape, curves, geometry all play a part. Metals like brass and steel were also popular in the Bauhaus adaptations. Think Milo Baughman, Cesca chair by Marcel Breuer, Platner Chairs by Warren Platner.

3. RESEARCH DESIGNERS

My next piece of advice is to research designers, their design style, and the various options available. Visit the local designer retailers in your city and admire the array of designs. Sit in them and feel them. Find out as much as you can from the sales team. What are the options on the legs, wood finish, leather, fabrics? Request for catalogues to peruse in the comfort of your own home. Get familiar with the designer and his/her works. When did they produce the most pieces? In what country? With which manufacturer? How many manufacturers have there been? How have their logos changed? 

For example, I had a client who was keen on Finn Juhl 136 chairs. In this case, I was already an avid fan and it was easy to scope out the options by visiting the local distributor fro Finn Juhl. As I delved deeper into my research which included multiple trips to the library, it occurred to me how extraordinary it would be to offer my clients an original Mid-century piece, like an old whiskey. It was during this stage of my research where I found out that Finn Juhl chairs made in the period 1950s by Niels Vodder, an exquisite cabinetmaker, bore a different logo from the current FJ chairs in production. It was also during this intense period of research, that I discovered that the 136 chairs were originally made in teak during the 1950s and this wood option is no longer available with the reissue from One Collection. Only oak and birch are available today. As many know, teak is a very luxurious wood with a golden glow and ages beautifully due to all its natural wood oils.

3. VALUE

Another important consideration is value. Original 136 chairs on sale today are fetching the same prices as brand new pieces from the manufacturer. So one must be asking, why on earth would you pay the same price for something so old?! The answer is in its value appreciation and scarcity of stock. In the 1950s, the 136 chair were sold at a fraction of what it's retailing at today, and suddenly one sees the incredible value unlocked in a couple of old chairs. Have we revealed the next Hermes bag of the furniture world? Well, not so fast, Finn Juhl chairs are very rare due to its high value. This is no main stream furniture designer. And only the very best pieces in excellent mint or pristine condition are resold at these incredibly high prices. This pair of FJ 45 chairs were listed on 1st dibs for USD$130,000 for the pair. Gulp.

 FJ 45 chairs, Image from 1st dibs

FJ 45 chairs, Image from 1st dibs

How easy is it to determine the market value and price? It really depends on the market and whether demand or supply is driving prices. Many factors like economic conditions, ease of sale, design and furniture trends come together to create a rather illiquid but increasingly informed and vibrant second-hand marketplace for vintage furniture. 

If you find this whole chair-hunting business as fascinating as I did when I first started, please head on to the second part for more tips and info on shops etc. 

Here's where to find the chair!

Check out Part 2: How to Buy a Vintage Mid-Century Chair here. All the tips and places to visit in Singapore to find that special one-off piece. 

Thanks for checking out the blog. If you have any comments, please drop me a note. I would love to hear from you. 

Ta!

Stacey

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