The Mod Squad

Prowling the showrooms of Soho

The longer one lives in this city, the more items one can cross off the Trendy New Yorker's Checklist. Extricate all primary colors from wardrobe. Check. Maintain but neglect health club membership. Check. Publicly admit being in therapy. Check. Covet midcentury modernist furniture. Check.

This final symptom often exhibits itself in the nesting stages of development. So it was that with marriage just a year away, I found myself in Soho furniture stores admiring the wooden rockers and fiberglass seats of Herman Miller shell chairs, appreciating the puzzlelike construction of Joe Colombo's last chair design. For those of us with rich fantasy lives in which the main problem is how to decorate our 6000-square-foot dream apartment, the showrooms of Soho are peep shows specializing in furniture porn. Look but don't touch—unless you're willing to pay dearly. In this environment of lust and gratification, there's a constantly shifting standard of beauty to which all other furniture is compared. These days it's the furniture of the '50s and '60s.

If you do decide to shell out the big money for high-end furniture, heed the words of Charles Eames, perhaps the most revered and collected of the midcentury modernist designers, who said: "The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in 10 years?" Well, 40 years later it still looks great, which is why even the most proletarian of Eames's designs fetch thousands of dollars today. Like the best furniture of the era, it's sturdy, spare but sensual, and a much more secure investment than our spastic stock market.

C.I.T.E. (100 Wooster Street, 431-7272): the indestructable pieces of the past
Robin Holland
C.I.T.E. (100 Wooster Street, 431-7272): the indestructable pieces of the past

While excellent deals can be found in neighborhoods with lower rents, Soho is a good place to begin your education in furniture fetishism. The sheer density of showrooms allows for a quick walking tour of the state of high-end furnishings, and if you're lucky you might even find a great deal.

Make sure you visit Troy (138 Greene Street, 941-4777) to experience firsthand the worst elements of Soho furniture shopping. The staff trip over themselves to avoid you, the furniture is beautiful, and you're made to feel as if you don't deserve it. Drool over (but don't sit on!) the $2955 black leather Paul Kjaerholm lounge chair, a leaner version of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair; snicker at the $1500 cowhide ottoman; adore the $1122 nesting tables. But who wants any of it if it's going to carry the stench of the soulless, purgatorial showroom it last lingered in? I'd rather spend my time and money with dealers whose enthusiasm is apparent and readily shared.

Though Rick Gallagher's 280 Modern (280 Lafayette Street, 941-5825) is technically in Soho, in spirit it's more like the Monty Python sketch about the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things. Eames dining chairs float above a Paul McCobb table stacked with Charivari chairs. A dance wand from the Solomon islands sits just feet away from a Donald Deskey–style desk from the '30s. Propped in the corner is several hundred square feet of deco paneling from a '30s department store window. Tall, bald, Anglo-Irish, and affable, Gallagher has none of the polish and pretense of the Soho drones, but he knows his furniture better than most of them. And, judging from his consistently high-quality inventory, he's exceptionally skilled at ferreting out the good and the rare. A yellow-and-gray metal-shaded lamp from the 1951 MOMA lamp design competition goes for $5000 dollars. If that's out of your price range, ask to see the $15 paper shades from the '50s.

Of the current rage for midcentury modern furniture, Gallagher says, "I don't know what the hell the public wants. Maybe we're in it for the long haul with this stuff. Everyone's house is starting to look like an auction catalogue. Who knows, maybe people will get tired of sitting on the same chair, wearing the same pants, eating the same food. Punks were the last gasp in a radical aesthetics. Apart from a complete rejection of materialism, I can't see anything new. I personally like more homemade, crafty stuff. I like to mix in tribal-type pieces. I'd like it if people relied more on their own taste."

Robert Swope and Michel Hurst of Full House (133 Wooster Street, 529-2298) have a more orderly approach to their stock, and, despite their refinement, have an appreciation that matches Gallagher's punk fervor. Back in 1986, at the tail end of the East Village art scene, they opened a store on Avenue B and 7th Street. Michel says, "People laughed at us for being in the East Village, but we had collectors coming to us, we had limos parked out front." Even before it was extremely popular, they specialized in the best designs of the '50s and '60s, particularly Charles Eames and George Nelson. "Every year the '50s gets rediscovered—I think it's because the state of contemporary American design is at a particularly low point." But not one we can't recover from: "I think plastics will finally get the respect it deserves as the greatest design innovation of the 20th century."

Though we're still painfully close to the 1980s, Michel believes this is where collectors are heading next. He cites Ettore Sottsass, whose famous red plastic Olivetti typewriter can is in the design collection gallery at MOMA, as one to watch. Of the two Sottsass pieces at Full House, one, a chair with a curved Plexiglas back and boxy legs covered with patterened laminate, is not for sale. Michel's taking it home. "The public isn't ready for this yet," he says with a smile. But with $14,000 and a penchant for risk, you can buy a Sottsass bookshelf: black, leaning at a tipsy 50-degree angle, and connected to a cabinet laminated with a bright, angular abstract pattern. To my unschooled eye, it looks like something from the set of perhaps the most visually radical TV show of the '80s, Pee-wee's Playhouse. But it's precisely associations like these that keep some people from getting excited about furniture from that era. Michel reminds me that "it used to be when people thought about '50s furniture, they thought of the boomerang table. But now people know it was much more than that. It's starting to happen with the '70s and '80s, but very slowly. People always dismiss things if they're not in a museum."

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