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Modern Furniture with Stuart

Martha Stewart Living Television

Collecting modern furniture has become something of a trend -- sales have increased dramatically, and contemporary galleries keep popping up. Stuart Parr discusses this design movement with Martha as they tour his New York City gallery, which showcases modern pieces from the thirties through the fifties.

Modern furniture design came into existence after World War I as a result of social and economic trends. Formal living was declining, mechanization of household labor was expanding, living spaces were getting smaller, and home entertainment was becoming more important. There was a need for smaller, lighter, more maintainable furniture, and people needed it in quantity, so it had to be inexpensive, as well. This type of furniture has become popular today not only because of its sleek look but also for its historical element.

Modern furniture is divided into three types: functionalist modern, transitional modern, and commercial modern. Functionalist modern adheres to an aesthetic of the machine. It is influenced by the Bauhaus School, a German school of arts and crafts that used experimental techniques and trained students for mass production. The design focuses on low price levels, maximum utility, good quality, and simple forms; a tangible example would be the plastic chairs seen in grade-school classrooms. Transitional modern is contemporary but infused with elements from the past; this design has a warmer, less clinical feel than functionalist modern. Its inspiration comes from late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century court and country house furniture; for example, factories would produce speeded-up variations on early cabinetmaking techniques. Commercial modern centers on progressive design at good cost; it is often referred to as Borax, because sellers of the cleanser used to offer premiums, thus the term became associated with extra value. Pieces in this genre are generally bulky, bulbous, brightly colored, glossily finished, and somewhat eccentric.

Some of the most influential and well-known modern furniture designers include Frank Lloyd Wright, who also designed homes and buildings including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City; Jean-Michel Frank, a Parisian designer who is arguably the most copied of the last century; and Warren McArthur, whose furniture Parr's gallery specializes in. Recently, Parr acquired the McArthur trademark from Warren McArthur's heirs and sublicensed the rights to a furniture maker in Munich, Germany. Original McArthur pieces are from lusterless, expensive material, such as the anodized aluminum chairs, tables, and sofas he designed and made between 1929 and 1941. High cost and painstaking design kept production quite limited; thus his pieces are highly coveted: A circa-1935 McArthur armchair sold for $8,050 at a Sotheby's auction in 1993.