Inside Bonhams
Grand designs

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 54, Spring 2018

Page 86

Bonhams' three amigos of decorative art tell Lucinda Bredin how they share their passion for design

Benjamin Walker is standing in Bonhams' newly refurbished mezzanine gallery in New York, pointing out the works that are to be offered in his December sale. "Just look around this room," he says, with a sweep of his hand. "You can see a Max Ernst, a Le Corbusier – there's Giacometti over there..."

It might sound as if Walker is in charge of the Impressionist and Modern Department. He is, in fact, Bonhams' Head of Modern Decorative Art and Design in the US. And all those sculptures, pieces of furniture and wall hangings were made as objects for a room. They are, however, unmistakably by great artists. The wall hanging by Max Ernst features an abstracted bird's head beneath a hot sun. A pair of lamps by Giacometti – that's Alberto, not the furniture-making brother, Diego – echo the master's attenuated sculptures, and the sofa made by Le Corbusier (in collaboration with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret) is every bit as 'uncompromising' as Le Corbu's buildings.

Walker, an Englishman in New York, is one of this new department's trio of specialists. Another Englishman, Dan Tolson, is based with him in New York, while Jason Stein covers the west coast from Los Angeles. "It's a great asset for us to be on both coasts," says Walker. "No other auction house has that. It means that our consigners have the option of selling on either coast – and we can advise them which would be the best market for their item."

Walker noticed that some works do much better in New York – and some soar in Los Angeles. "Pieces influenced by European and International styles such as Art and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Japonisme and Post-War Design do very well in New York. L.A. is strong for sophisticated 'Lifestyle' living – West Coast craft and studio works from masters such as John Dickinson and Sam Maloof are especially well received in our Sunset Boulevard saleroom, as well as designs for outdoor living by Walter Lamb."

Walker points to the results from New York's December sale: "For example, we got a top result for Giacometti's Étoile lamps, which sold for $225,000." The Modern Decorative Art and Design sale in Los Angeles this April has a different vibe. Centred around Modernist decor by visionary California designer John Dickinson, there is also a capsule collection of architectural photos by Julius Shulman and an exceptional selection of Studio Design highlighted by rare ceramics by Peter Voulkos. This new approach, curated by Stein, comes complete with room sets styled by gallerist and interior designer Patrick Dragonette. As Stein says, "We find that new clients to this collecting area, especially, draw inspiration from seeing museum-quality pieces alongside other objects. It gives an idea of how one-off works can spark off conversations with other styles."

One of the strengths of this highly versatile department is their exceptional experience. For instance, Walker, who studied Fine Art before taking a diploma in Fine Arts Valuation, began working for a private gallery where he was given a grounding in silver and the decorative arts from 1850 onwards. After a very instructive moment in luxury retail, working at Thomas Goode – "think very elaborate candelabra" – and Marks Antiques, he went to Australia and New York to work for private clients. But he missed being in a team. "When Matthew Girling approached me to come to Bonhams and said he wanted me to gather a new set of people with new eyes, new ideas and a new attitude, I jumped at the opportunity."

One of his first hires was Dan Tolson, who had headed up the Design Department at Bonhams Los Angeles. A long-time design aficionado – with a degree in Design History – Tolson had worked at Christie's London and Phillips. "I've always been obsessed with design," he says.

"My parents had a very good eye, and some of my earliest memories are looking at things they had – Isamu Noguchi-style lanterns and seagrass flooring, which were quite cutting edge in the 1970s." Dan understands the thrill of the chase: "When I was 10, I began to go to flea markets to pick up pieces of Murano glass...". He created the first stand-alone design sale for Phillips in 1999, before the auction house merged with Bonhams in 2003. Back in L.A., Dan also collaborated with Dane Jensen, Bonhams Head of Contemporary Art there, on an exhibition in a landmark apartment building to showcase art and design together. Jason Stein, like Dan, formerly ran Bonhams L.A. Design department and spent several years in Christie's 20th-Century Decorative Arts division. Jason specialises in selling works by legends of design and has arrived to build on those foundations, adding his own inimitable twist of style.

The art world – as much as the design world – has begun to notice this full-throttle department. The Art Newspaper featured a stained-glass panel by George Grant Elmslie in its 'Object Lessons' column. As Walker points out, "Collectors have realised that decorative works by these artists are very much part of their oeuvre. With the Giacometti lamps, for example, there's a direct link to his sculptures. And ceramics by Lucie Rie are now rightly considered to be sculptures.

What we can offer to new – and experienced – buyers is connoisseurship, advice, inspiration and our own passion. Hey, we just love having conversations with those who are passionate about this truly exciting realm of art."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Sale: Modern Decorative Art and Design
Los Angeles
Tuesday 17 April at 1pm
Enquiries: Jason Stein +1 323 436 5466

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