LONDON and EDINBURGH, U.K. – An exceptional collection of plywood furniture by English modernist designer Gerald Summers (1899-1967) – the largest of its type to come to auction – proved a sell-out when offered at Lyon & Turnbull‘s The Modern Made sale, held on October 28. It was one of four design-themed sales held by the house in October. Together, the sales totaled £2.65 million, or about $3.1 million.
The Modern Made sale’s lineup included 23 pieces of 1930s furniture by Summers from a collector who has long championed his work. Gerald Summers and his partner Marjorie Butcher opened their London shop, Makers of Simple Furniture, in 1931. For a decade, until the firm closed with the onset of the Second World War, Simple Furniture produced more than 200 designs conceived in the modernist creed as “furniture for the concrete age.” The emphasis was very much on function, modern materials, and machine methods of manufacture.
The collection included a fine example of Summers’ best-known design, his circa-1933-34 armchair made from a single sheet of birch plywood. Summers had the ingenious vision to try and construct a chair that would require no joins and create very little waste, relying instead on simple incisions and mold bending. The example offered was purchased new by the Oxford artist Juliette May Lucille Edwards and acquired by the vendor from her estate in 2011. It was estimated at £7,000-£9,000 but sold for £25,200.
Another Summers piece that had a provenance to its original owner was a circa-1935 set of three nesting tables that realized £6,930. These came by descent from Cecil Handisyde, one of a team of architects who designed the Lansbury Estate in Tower Hamlets, London.
A circa-1936 stained ash plywood and brass trolley is Summers’ only documented design for Isokon, the design firm founded by Jack Pritchard and Welles Coates. Both Isokon and Simple Furniture used the same birch plywood manufacturer, Venesta, in their furniture-making. Although a series of copies have been produced this century, only 20 or so original trolleys were thought to have been made before plywood became difficult to source with the onset of the Second World War. Estimated at £12,000-£18,000, it realized £35,200.
Another particularly scarce Summers piece is a Type P chair, its legs formed from single strips of bent plywood that rise to form the back supports. This is believed to be the only surviving example of the chair, though it is known that two were originally produced. It was described in the Makers of Simple Furniture advertising as: “Suitable for occasional or dining use. Constructed of selected birch and finished in clear polish.” The Type P chair brought £22,680.
Collectively the Summers lots totaled more than £205,000, with bidders and buyers from the UK, America and China. The vendor said of the results: “I have for many years sung the praises of this great British designer. This body of work, whilst including only a fraction of his 200 designs, has given a voice to Gerald Summers and hope that it will encourage debate and much deserved greater inclusion in the history of the modernist movement.”
The October 28 Lyon & Turnbull Modern Made sale, which has a format that blends art and objects from progressive design movements of the past century, was also memorable for its array of studio wares by post-war and contemporary women potters. Foremost among these was a signature vase by Kenyan-born ceramicist Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950-) whose work now enjoys the sort of financial rewards shared only by a small handful of post-war studio potters. Odundo’s Untitled Vessel from 1986, painstakingly fashioned in the burnished and carbonized terracotta that is her signature medium, assumes an asymmetrical form evocative of the human body. It was acquired by the vendor at auction more than 25 years ago at a time when the market was in its relative infancy. Estimated at a modest £10,000-£15,000, it achieved a mighty £225,000. This was the second-highest price paid for a work by the potter, who holds the auction record for a work by any living ceramic artist.
A footed bowl with a pale blue glaze by the doyenne of the medium, Lucie Rie (1902-95) earned £9,450. Displaying a mastery of form and glaze, it is part of a collection of studio pottery assembled in the 1980s that specialist Philip Smith first traveled to see at the end of lockdown.
The Modern Made sale was just one part of Lyon & Turnbull’s four-part £2.65 million series of Design-related sales that began in Edinburgh on October 12 with the Design Since 1860 auction. Leading the sale was a dark-stained and waxed oak ladderback chair with its original drop-in rush seat designed by the architect and polymath Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Catherine Cranston’s Argyle Street tearooms in 1898. Used at one end of the Luncheon Room, about 20 chairs of this robust design appear in contemporary photographs, of which five are known to survive. Estimated at £8,000-£12,000, the chair went for £32,700.
A writing desk designed by Mackintosh ultimately realized £30,200. Now converted to a table, the lattice-form pedestal once formed the base of a four-person desk made by Frances Smith for the Ladies’ Rest Room at Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearoom in 1909. It had been purchased by the owner in or around 1960.
The final two of the four Lyon & Turnbull Design-related sales took place on October 27: Lalique glass, led by Joy McCall; and Travel & Vintage Posters, conducted in partnership with specialists Tomkinson Churcher.
A standout piece of Lalique in this biannual dedicated auction was the so-called Caravelle table centerpiece in clear and frosted glass, which attained £75,200. The design, centered on a 17th-century style man-of-war gunship, was first produced in 1931 (the galleon is an emblem on the coat of arms of Paris), but this piece was one of three created for the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1938. To complement the gift of a large dinner service featuring seagulls, a series of 13 gulls in flight (three on the front, 10 to the reverse) was added. Only two other examples are known to exist – one in the Royal Collection and another version held in the Musee Lalique.
A classic Scottish scene for LNER topped the 50 lots of vintage posters in the second October 27 auction, selling for £12,600. Over the Forth to the North from 1928 depicts the iconic railway bridge which, crossing the Forth estuary in Scotland, had the world’s longest span when it opened in 1890. Henry George Gawthorn’s bold Art Deco-style scene in shades of blue conveys the industrial aesthetic and structural impact of this remarkable feat of engineering.
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