I wouldn’t be surprised to find such an impressive assemblage of original mid-century furnishings and accessories in the home of a wealthy collector but my sense is that the couple who live in this 1,400-square foot apartment above a store not far from Toronto’s High Park, aren’t especially well-to-do. She’s a design writer who’s working on her first novel and he’s an artist with a day job in the construction/development industry.
Because their collection is now so valuable and because their address might be easy to track down if I identified them by name, we’ll simply call her C and him R. This is the story of how they pulled together such an astonishingly fine collection of vintage designer pieces by shopping smart and buying what they loved, whether or not it had a name attached to it.
The couple claim not to be purists although nearly everything in their home has a pedigree or provenance. Of course the Ant Chair, above left, is an early Arne Jacobsen original, but the couple didn’t even know that the round lounge chair, above right, was by Nana Ditzel, they just loved the look of it. The black and white lamp on the dressser is Italian, likely Ettore Sottsass and the signed rug is Danish.
“Mid-century modern is clearly our primary interest,” says C, “but we want it to be comfortable more than anything else. There are lots of vintage pieces we’ve had over the years that we’ve gotten rid of because they just weren’t functional or comfortable. We had some really funky plastic chairs that everybody said, ‘Oh, wow,’ but you really couldn’t sit in them for more than five minutes. We got into teak because the aesthetic of the wood is just beautiful and it’s also homey, it’s not hard-edged.”
As you come up the stairs into the apartment you find yourself in an open hallway facing the dining table, left. I immediately recognized the Neils O. Moller chairs and assumed the table was by the same designer because the materials – teak and woven reed — even the legs, are nearly identical. In fact, the table was found on Craigslist years after the chairs were purchased: “We still don’t know who made the table,” says C. “We’re sure it’s somebody important and we’ll eventually figure it out. Although we got it off Craigslist, we had to pay money for it, but nothing outrageous. It looks like they were made for each other.”
The sculptures on table are by Peter Mah, a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design. On the back wall a painting by Canadian war artist Jack Nichols hangs above a rare and valuable piece of Canadian design history, a Clairtone stereo in perfect working condition; Charles Mingus was spinning on the turntable throughout my tour.
Both home owners are well educated about design and each has a keen eye. They’ve been collecting for 25 yeas and made some of their best scores on road trips in the U.S., particularly Detroit about 15 years ago “when the city was just starting to decline and things were coming out of the houses as people moved on. Now, it’s all picked over,” says C.
And while both Madame and Monsieur are inveterate denizens of estate and yard sales, they’re prepared to open their wallets when they have to: “If you really love something,” says C, “then sometimes you just have to go to a dealer and pay the money.”
Which is what they did with their beautiful Poul Kjaerholm sofa and chair set, above, purchased in the 1990s for north of $5,000 USD. But the pieces have doubled or even tripled in value since then as the designer’s status and the MCM craze skyrocketed. Even the throw on the sofa has a pedigree, it’s by Sweden’s Viola Grasten.
The couple’s coffee table, which is really a bench, is an early piece by US designer Karl Springer who eventually moved on from leather (as in this example) to more exotic skins and materials. Two nesting tables tuck neatly beneath the bench (notice the hollowed diamond-shaped legs).
At the other end of the living room is a book shelf lit by a red Murano glass pendant that the couple scored at a yard sale for $20. A bit of research revealed that the piece is by Allesandro Pianon and actually worth in the neighbourhood $1,200 – $1,500. The vintage Donahue chairs were another good deal: “They cost more to reupholster than to buy,” says C; the circular stools are by Kjaerholm.
Hanging in front of the shelves is a delicate brush painting by late US expressionist Morris Cole Graves that R picked up at an estate sale because he liked the teak frame. It was only later that he discovered Graves’ birds were fetching several thousand dollars at auction.
The couple offers some useful tips for how to do well at yard and estate sales but overall C advises people “to get off the name brands. If you go after the most iconic, popular pieces you get caught in this cycle where you feel like you have to pay big money and it has to be perfect and then it gets matchy matchy. I say, buy what you love and don’t worry about the labels.”
So what are C and R’s tips? When you’re at a yard sale, always pay attention to the tables on which the smalls are displayed. That’s how they found their amazing Hans Wegner drop-leaf table, which C uses for a desk. The Lightolier tripod lamp is by Gerald Thurston, the rug is Danish and the Lamino Lounge Chair is by Yngve Ekstrom.
“We found the Wegner table at the end of the day at a yard sale in Forest Hill. There were some not-so-great chairs around it,” recalls C. “People were looking on top of it and not at the table because of the chairs around it. So always look underneath the display surface. Another tip is at antique malls or shops, the chair the owner is sitting in is always the best chair and it’s usually for sale if you ask.”
Material and weight are another sign of good quality, says C: “If the piece is heavy, if it seems well made, it’s probably the real deal.”
“We have no problem buying anonymous pieces if they’re great looking and comfortable,” she adds. “Then often times we later discover it’s by someone important but we can go for years without knowing who made something or what it might be worth, then suddenly you stumble across it in a book or on the internet.
“When we started,” admits C, “we were like everybody else, we wanted the classic pieces, the Eames Eiffel Tower chairs and the Mies MR chair, but then once you’ve done that you want it to be a bit more personal. When I look at the mid-century modern homes in Architectural Digest it’s almost like paint by numbers, all the rooms look the same, they have no personality, no punch, they look like museum exhibits. We’re not into that at all.”