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."

Though only time will determine who of today's designers are destined to be the Eameses and Nelsons of the future, design cognoscenti look to Murray Moss for best bets. Moss (146 Greene Street, 226-2190) isn't stocked as much as it's curated, and with an eye to the radical. Like the Finnish Airbag chair ($375); with its yellow straps and high-tech reflective fabric, it's something you can imagine being lowered by winch from a Medevac helicopter. Or the huge red rubber decorative bowl, suitable for holding your balloon collection but little else. For $20, you can walk away with Wolfgang Dufhues's bottle opener, an attractive and functional objet d'art that doesn't dent bottlecaps, so they can be resealed. As in a museum, most of the products are behind glass and have labels next to them listing the designer, production date, and an explanation of the object's use, if it's not entirely apparent. But Moss is as much exploratorium as museum, with holes cut into the displays for interactivity, as well as a platoon of salespeople eager to answer questions.

At Dom (382 West Broadway, 334-5580), you can get the most flash for your money—if your aesthetic is Club Kid Ikea, that is. This budget design store is split into two sections. To your left is the K-hole you never want to trip into: a squadron of frosted glass jars with Day-Glo tops that resemble the baby bottles of a thousand orphaned ravers, 10 styles of lava lamps, alien candles, feather frames, bean-bag chairs, an inflatable love seat—all priced to contribute to the sensory overload of some NYU dorm dweller. The irony of it all, a clerk tells me, is that the place is frequented not by youngsters but by parents buying their children gifts. The right side of the store is the grown-up section—more expensive, geared more toward housewares, but still reasonably priced. Chrome kitchenware, glass-topped tables, and cool metal chairs with plastic tubing seats could stock a first apartment with flair.

For the closet banker or rich Raymond Chandler bad guy in all of us, Aero's collection of furniture and objets d'art (at 132 Spring Street, 966-1500) are dominated by somber gray fabric, deeply stained wood, and brown leather. Upstairs, the furniture showroom features a mix of their own design line and a scattering of refurbished furniture from the '30s and '40s. In this noir setting, they offer a reupholstered mohair sofa for $6850, a down-filled club chair in gray frisé upholstery for $9600, a Wabbs Belgian rosewood desk for $6500. If you're not a captain of industry, the downstairs showroom offers more affordable anachronisms: $45 dollars for a set of cool cocktail forks capped with silver animal figures and faces, hand-blown opalescent glass vases, and Japanese Kiri wood trays for $85 and up.

To see the sparest and most minimalist furniture around, stop by Cappellini–Modern Age (102 Wooster Street, 966-0669), where everything is clean lines, sharp angles, and fabrics in muted neutral tones. Despite the very expensive, dust-free environment, the staff is friendly and clearly love what they do, dis pen sing design advice with little prodding. Cappellini–Modern Age's Erwin de Leon admits that the store's focus isn't very expansive in scope—"We've been accused of being very quote unquote Wallpaper"—and can't venture a guess at where popular furniture design is going. In defense of the current obsession with '50s-inspired minimalism, he says that even the starkest furniture will still look good when more ornate designs have gone out of fashion. He points out that unobtrusiveness is its strong point. "It's probably not going to clash," says de Leon. "When people ask me if this minimalist credenza will match the other furniture in their apartment, I say just pay attention to form and color. If it looks right to you, then it's fine." Of the most affordable items, the cute $389 Smartie, a squishy two-foot-wide rubber pillow that looks like an oversized Advil, is the high-tech descendent of the bean-bag chair.

You'll find more rustic goods at Interieurs (114 Wooster Street, 343-0800), where the ethos seems to be Francophile modern meets shabby country chic. The hand-carved teakwood bench betrays an artisan's hand and is something of a relief after all the machine-age furniture that dominates the other Soho stores. But I'm not sure a little label that reads, "'50s chair, found in the South of France" justifies the $450 price tag. I require a little more precise carbon dating before I shell out the C-notes. Still, the cast-iron worktables they manufacture (starting at $2800) are very cool, with a metal top that's allowed to oxidize then sealed with a matte varnish. And they do look sturdy enough to support the French collective ego.

At C.I.T.E. (100 Wooster Street, 431-7272), you can break the bank, if you'd like, by splurging several thousand dollars on the smoked Perspex desk. In layman's terms, that's brownish-purple see-through plastic, the desk Barbarella would've used in her home office. Or for much less money, you can buy an indestructable piece of the past in the form of '60s-era orange and green plastic kitchen utensils, starting at around $15 a piece. A stroll through C.I.T.E. shows the ease with which furniture from different decades within the 20th century can blend together. "If C.I.T.E.'s about anything," says store manager Karen Jackson, "it's about showing people how the old and the new and the expensive and the obscure can go together quite well." And she's right. Orange and yellow plastic tables designed by Marc Berthier are arranged beneath a swatch of what looks like unmowed Astroturf. A glass-topped table with chrome legs is grouped with a Lucite desk chair and white stacking Panton chairs at $4000 for a set of four. Collectors can snag original Arne Jacobson chairs at four for $1500. If that's out of your price range, come for quirkier, cheaper items. Greeting cards, picture frames, and condom vases (a prophylactic hanging from a wire loop) can be had for $25 and under.

To have your faith in vintage shaken, visit the bright and airy Modernica showroom (57 Greene Street, 219-1303), where it takes a collector's eye or a salesperson to tell you that the apparently period furniture on display is all brand-new. Find out here what a George Nelson bench looks like fresh out of the box. And you can have as many as you want, since Modernica sells the complete line of Herman Miller reissues. When you can buy a brand-new Noguchi dining table replica for $795, a George Nelson bench for $499, or a Frank Lloyd Wright lamp for $413, you wonder whether you want it because it's a good and attractive piece of furniture, or because it's a chic antique. Asked whether Modernica's ethos will change if midcentury modern furniture is eclipsed by another era, store manager Lisa Fortin says, "We generally don't get the kind of buyer who cares about that kind of thing. People buy the furniture here because they like the way it looks and because it works. And space is an issue for a lot of people in this area, and this furniture just doesn't take up much room. Even if they're not aware of it, they're also responding to the fact that there was thought in design back then." In addition to the reissues, Modernica manufactures furniture inspired by the best designs of the '50s and '60s. Their angora mohair velvet upholstery has a Wyzenbeek fabric-rub-test rating of 76,000 double rubs (whatever that means, it sounds pretty durable). How many vintage furniture stores can boast of such a test drive? Charles Eames himself would probably be impressed. Though the accretion of years has its historical appeal, vintage wasn't one of Eames's main questions. To review before you sign that credit-card slip: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in 10 years?


One of four articles in our Shelter Supplement.

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