Three Experts on the Power of Collecting Historic Decorative Arts Today
If the Digital Era was announced in boldface headlines, the Age of the Object was reported in small print. But it is here. From the booming market for collectible design and contemporary craft to the endless scroll of antiques on Instagram, younger and new collectors have embraced material culture—objects you can touch, feel, and think about—with a fervor not seen since at least the 1980s.
While collectible design and contemporary craft are relatively accessible thanks to their ubiquity across high culture, historic decorative arts can be harder to crack. A new collector may “like” a seventeenth-century cabinet online, but what’s exciting about it beyond a richly lacquered surface? And what should they know about the collecting field in which that cabinet may be offered for sale?
As the Age of the Object sets in, I sit down with three TEFAF exhibitors—Robert Aronson of Aronson Antiquairs, Oscar Graf of Oscar Graf Gallery, and Laura Kugel of Galerie Kugel—to learn about what excites them in the world of decorative arts today, from new perspectives on globalization to the power of immediacy in a hyper-mediated world, and find out what you should know about the field.
Perhaps the most exciting development of all, the conversation reveals, is the sheer opportunity for new collectors to enter the still-accessible arena of historic material culture. As Laura Kugel says: “If you want to build an eccentric, unique collection, collect the decorative arts. It won’t get better than this. And your living room will look like no one else’s.”
What concept or idea in the decorative arts fascinates you right now?
Oscar Graf: I never say that antiques are of better quality than contemporary material, which is not true. Quality comes in many forms. What distinguishes pre-war decorative arts instead is a wonderful uniqueness—a singularity that is impossible to replicate in the modern world. That fascinates me. When you look at an object that isn’t industrially made, you may be looking at one with multiple examples, but they’re unique, whether in color, finish, or some more obscure detail. If I am exhibiting two similar objects, they may have been designed by the same person, but they were made for two different houses, five years apart, and for clients with distinct tastes. And artists don’t want to repeat themselves, so variations tend to occur. An object with less history can be wonderful, but the material in my field transmits the history of an era—with all of its nuance—into our world. I love that.
Laura Kugel: We are bringing three historic European objects featuring Japanese lacquer to TEFAF Online, and each one speaks to Europe’s longstanding fascination with the sumptuous craft of lacquer, but also to the story of early trade routes—globalization before the period we usually associate with that term. The lacquer in these works was probably made for sophisticated Japanese audiences, then imported at great cost to satisfy the huge demand of the collectors revolving around Marie Antoinette and her mother, Maria Theresa, and the tastemakers in their milieux. To me, these objects speak to histories of taste and cross-cultural interests that I find a very compelling today.
Robert Aronson: I often think about the enormous amount of labor it took for many people in many different specialties to create an object in my field. When you see an earthenware vessel, you may think, ‘An artist made that object,’ but the process begins with sourcing the right clay, washing that clay, molding it into the form we see today, obtaining the ingredients for the glaze, making sure the glazing is transparent and clean, sourcing the right cobalt that turns blue in the oven, and so on. There are so many facets to creating a good-quality piece of Dutch Delftware, and it’s not the result of just one pair of hands; it’s the product of a whole industry that worked to create a singular, wonderful object.
Tell us something about collecting or the decorative arts that buyers may not know.
Laura Kugel: The taste of a period translates from the painting to the silver spoon. So, if you love the Renaissance or the Baroque in the fine arts, know that you will find whatever you love about your favorite period in the decorative arts. These aesthetic modes were not just for images you put on the wall; they represent an entire zeitgeist. In our gallery, with such a wide variety of material, you can study a detail in a painting and see how it translates into a piece of furniture from the same period just a few feet away. These practices were not disassociated or siloed in their own times, and there is no reason why they should be today.
Robert Aronson: A good collection doesn’t contain only masterpieces. It features a middle layer that establishes a baseline of quality, explaining why the masterpieces are what they are—essentially, setting off their greatness. And that middle layer speaks to different histories; for example, middle-class versus aristocratic or royal collecting contexts. I think it’s an essential component. New collectors have a unique opportunity in the decorative arts to survey an accessible field, find an entry point they’re comfortable with, immerse themselves in research and exploration, and embark on a very enjoyable collecting journey. From the start, you can begin assembling an important part of your collection. That’s exciting.
Oscar Graf: Because of the changes that were occurring during my period (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), with the rise of industrial design and changing production methods, some makers were better at design and some were better at execution. That’s not a bad thing; it’s one of the dynamics that makes the field so interesting. The French were brilliant at execution, drawing on their deep craft traditions, while the Americans and British were geniuses of design—focusing on innovation at the vanguard of what was new. A piece of furniture by E.W. Godwin is not the best-made from a technical perspective—that is, based on exacting French standards—but Godwin is remembered as one of the most amazing designers ever, and that is the legacy you are participating in when you collect his material.
Why should someone begin collecting within the decorative arts?
Robert Aronson: I know collectors who only buy when they’re traveling, and I really admire their practice. This can be such a fun arena! The collectors I’m thinking of see their acquisitions as souvenirs, and if you think about it, that is precisely what was happening during the seventeenth and eighteenth century with the Grand Tour, when objects from Italy were brought up to Northern Europe or elsewhere by curious and inspired travelers. It speaks to the idea of collecting as a journey, and we can have that experience today. To me, there is nothing more fun than researching a subject with your partner and discovering what you both like. You can travel the world together, visiting museums and fairs like TEFAF and encountering amazing objects, discussing them, and opening yourselves to new ways of seeing. This can happen in the decorative arts just as it happens with a good glass of wine: You open a bottle and share the experience with each other, and if you find an estate or vintage you both like, maybe you continue along that path. It can be just the same with Delftware or other disciplines.
Oscar Graf: One of the unique things about my period is that it reflects the past but also the origins of design and modernism as we know it today. I often find myself saying to collectors, ‘You love midcentury design, but it wouldn’t exist without a Josef Hoffmann or a Henry van de Velde.’ There are so many understudied topics and genealogies of influence to explore, and many of them relate to modern and contemporary art and design, so there’s an opportunity to build an intelligent collection that gives a fuller account of the story of design. You can also look at Arts and Crafts or Art Nouveau material that had less of an impact on later twentieth century design but is in dialogue with the past in fascinating ways. Even though these objects have migrated from the category of “minor arts” to hold an equal status with fine art, you live with them day to day—just as you live with paintings and drawings on the wall—and they remind you of the highest achievements of human creativity and craft. They’re so fragile, but they have endured, and when you’re lucky to own these objects in their original condition, you want to care for them and be a steward. It’s an honor that we are able to fill that role.
Laura Kugel: I find the capacity for eclecticism and imagination in the decorative arts to be a potent attraction for aspiring collectors. I love the idea that the sky is the limit: There is no model to follow besides your own taste and interests. There are no rules. So many layers of understanding can be unpacked in a single object: cultural histories, lost or forgotten techniques and skills, a multitude of personal stories. These allow you to dive in and keep coming back to the same object for research time and again. At the same time, there is a strong sense of immediacy in the decorative arts, and I cherish that. It doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with an object—you can find it beautiful, ugly, or shocking—but the material can provoke a strong sensation from the get-go without needing any further mediation or explanation. In a sense, the most compelling opportunity is your ability to look without judging in the way you might do with a painting, for example. A box is a box. Maybe you’re not going to put anything in it, but you can understand it. And so much can unfold from that initial encounter—a lifetime of wonder and interest.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Michael Diaz-Griffith is the executive director of Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation and author of “The New Antiquarians,” forthcoming from The Monacelli Press in 2022.