What you see: A Hand chair, covered in silver leaf and designed by Mexican artist Pedro Friedeberg. Shown further along in this story is a second Hand chair in unadorned mahogany. Both chairs date to circa 1965, both will be offered at Rago in the same Jan. 19, 2020 auction. Each carries an estimate of $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house. [Rago and Wright merged in 2019.]
Who is Pedro Friedeberg, and why is his work still collected today? He’s a self-styled eccentric and a surrealist. I should say – I’ve never met him, and I’m not an expert on Pedro Friedeberg, but I’ve handled a good bit of his work and referenced his website and his statements. He comes off as a 21st century Dalí. He’s proudly eccentric. That seems to be his brand.
Would the Hand chair be Friedeberg’s best-known work? I think that’s fair to say. It’s his most widely produced.
Do we know how he came up with the idea of the Hand chair? I don’t know that, but to me, his art is all about … if you look at Surrealism, Salvador Dalí does the Lips sofa in the 1930s and reintroduces it in the 1960s. A bit of a Pop sensibility comes to Surrealism in the 1960s. There’s a body consciousness. The Hand is evocative. It draws on motifs that appear earlier in his work. You can make an art-historical case that there’s threads of it in Mexican fine art, in Frida Kahlo, and Catholic iconography.
Yeah, the Hand chair strikes me as having a sort of retablo feel to it. Exactly. I’m sure Friedeberg would tell a fantastical story of how the Hand chair came to be. He could be an unreliable narrator.
You said the Hand chair draws on motifs that appear earlier in Friedeberg’s work. Could you elaborate? He has a fine art practice [as well as his design work]. The same surrealistic elements are in his painting – hands that point. I’m sure he was working with the motif in two-dimensional art before it manifested as a chair.
How is the Hand chair produced? Is it mass-produced, or is it created in a more artisanal manner, like studio furniture? It’s all studio-produced in Mexico. It’s not widely distributed, but he’s worked within the art gallery system. It’s not true production furniture. [Hand chairs produced] while he is alive are considered original Pedro Friedeberg furniture.
On the Wikipedia page for Pedro Friedeberg, there’s a reference to maybe 5,000 Hand chairs having been produced since the design debuted in 1962. Is that accurate? I can’t imagine there are 5,000 of them. In reading things that he writes, you have to take everything with a large grain of salt.
Even throwing in the Hand-Foot variants, we don’t get to 5,000? Even so, I think, based on what comes up in a year, 5,000 is a lot to be circulating.
What number do you think is more likely, based on your gut feeling? I would say – and there are a lot of variations – half that number.
How many variations of the Hand chair are there? And is the Hand-Foot chair considered a Hand chair? It’s considered a form of the Hand chair. There’s the Hand chair in natural wood, and with silver or gold leaf. There are at least two Hand-Foot variations: a single foot, and a cluster of feet.
Do collectors clearly prefer any one variation over the others? I don’t think it’s that rigorous a collecting mentality. They buy them because they’re cool, and they make a statement in a room, rather than buying them as a significant investment in a serious work of art. I don’t know if there’s a clear hierarchy. Gold and silver leaf is an upgrade from the standard wood – that feels true to me. Visually, I think the silver and the gold are nicest. The silver is rarer than the gold. It’s up to you which one you find more interesting.
Both these chairs are undated, but both have a circa date of 1965. What clues point to a relatively early date for the two Hand chairs? There’s not a ton of info out there. You can’t just send them [Pedro Friedeberg and his studio] infomation. There’s not an archivist to help you. These dates are based on facts that come from the consigners.
From the look of his website, having an archivist would be antithetical to Pedro Friedeberg’s brand … That seems to be apparent to me. [Laughs] He’s a fine artist who doesn’t want to work within the system. Friedeberg’s work floats outside of that.
And these two Hand chairs are from two different consigners? Yes.
Why does it make sense to have two versions of the same chair, made around the same time? Is it because they’re just different enough from each other? That was the thinking. There’s enough depth and interest in the market to have two, a wood and a silver. And they are opposing – a left-handed example and a right-handed example. You can take the two and put them next to each other to form a settee.
The silver leaf Hand chair is signed by Friedeberg and the plain mahogany one is not. Does that matter at all? Again, it comes down to … people are not approaching it as a fine art purchase, but as a decorative art purchase. The wood one is unsigned, but we have the provenance, which guarantees it is original. The silver is signed. Obviously, it’s nice to have it signed.
Why do the two different Hand chairs have the same estimate? The silver variation is the better chair. In giving them a $7,000 to $9,000 estimate, we didn’t bother making the distinction to say that the silver chair is slightly rarer, and signed. It’s a more pragmatic decision, to think of it as a Hand chair.
What condition are the Hand chairs in? And what issues do you tend to see with vintage Hand chairs? Both are in good condition, and in general, they actually tend to be in good condition. The worst that happens, with the leaf examples, is scratching to the leaf. Hand chairs are lightly used, and if they’re cared for at all, they’re in good shape.
Have you sat in a Hand chair? What is that like? The seat is deeply carved. It does have a contour to make it practical to sit in. It’s great for the Instagram era. It’s theatrical. It’s not uncomfortable to sit in, but I wouldn’t put a suite of Hand chairs around a conference table to conduct meetings. [Laughs]
So, comfortable, but only just? They’re functional chairs, but you don’t sit in them often, or for very long. You may perch on one to put on your shoes, but you won’t watch a movie in a Hand chair.
What’s the world auction record for a Hand chair? It’s a gold, Hand chair sold at Rago in September 2018 for $28,750 on a $6,000 to $8,000 estimate.
Is there any chance that the silver leaf Hand chair might take off like that record-setting gold leaf one did a little while ago? People buy these because they’re looking for a cool chair to make a statement. When Hand chairs do well, they’re bought by decorators or clients who use it as a punctuation mark in a room. [Whether a chair takes off at auction is] really driven by are there two people who really want that chair?
Has the Hand chair always been sought-after, or was there a time when it was considered unfashionable? It’s always been a chair that would garner your attention. It’s never been a chair that there’s no interest in. It’s pretty cool, but I think his market has risen and it looks better than it was in the 1990s. Friedeberg is well overdue for a proper retrospective. I’d love to see that happen while he’s alive, but I think it will be in the future. He fits in in an interesting way with the Surrealist Pop sensibility, and with motifs from Mexico. I think there’s a real story there.
So, right now, the Hand chairs are regarded as decorative art, not fine art. Is it possible in the years to come that general opinion might morph, and they might be seen as fine art? And if so, have you seen that sort of shift – first seen as decorative art, now seen as fine art–happen with other furnishings or fittings? I do believe Friedeberg’s work will be reassessed at some future date. As he is a fine artist, the chairs may be seen in that context, but as they also serve a function, they will always be in a middle ground. The sculptor Franz West made decorative art works that sit in that middle ground, and they are viewed in both ways. Scott Burton is another example. Future curators and scholars will decide.
Why does Pedro Friedeberg’s Hand chair design endure? How has it avoided being dated or dismissed as kitsch to remain collectible in the 21st century? I just think it’s visually cool. In its classic configuration with the pedestal base, it’s chic. You can mix it
How to bid: The silver leaf version of the Hand chair, which is left-handed, is lot 663 in Rago‘s Modern Design sale, scheduled for Jan. 19, 2020. The right-handed mahogany version is lot 641.
Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.