By John Dugan
Last year was a dark one for the big auction houses, with the economic slump and September 11 hitting an industry already rocked by the Sotheby's and Christie's price-fixing scandal. But according to Richard Wright, his young West Loop auction house is on the upswing. "Our business has thrived, while Sotheby's closed the Chicago location," he says. "I just see that there is a place for someone who is not a multinational corporation." Except for Phillips (the number three house), he also thinks the bigger houses haven't picked up on the recent surge of interest in midcentury design: "They are missing the boat. A lot of this work is important and will go up in value."
The utopian, largely American-led school of design that characterized the 50s has been rediscovered in recent years thanks to magazines like Wallpaper, which packages modernism as a lifestyle. Now names such as Eames, Knoll, and Saarinen roll off the tongues of those who grew up with neocolonial and Ethan Allen. Wright attributes the rediscovery to "a generational thing," but also to modernism's inherent integrity, optimism, and utility. Also, modernism was a bit ahead of its time on the first pass. An original Isamu Noguchi paddle fin table can now fetch $18,000 at auction, but it flopped in the marketplace when copies of the ovoid, three-legged table were mass-produced.
"I feel really strongly about the postwar period. It was the first time that America led the design world," Wright says. Between 1945 and 1958, modern design was informed by a populism and idealism that could be construed as naive today, but for Wright it's infinitely preferable to the elitism of the French deco that preceded it. A prime example, Wright says, is one of Arne Jacobsen's late-50s egg chairs. "These things weren't done tongue-in-cheek like you see now. They felt they had come to the right solution." Now the egg chair has "that nostalgia factor," like a James Bond film. "It's over-the-top."
A native of Portland, Maine, Wright got hooked on modern design in the mid-80s, when he dropped out of the University of Massachusetts to sell entry-level collectibles like 50s plastic clocks and boomerang ashtrays at east-coast flea markets. It would be several years before he developed an interest in furniture, and a few more before egg chairs started popping up in New York Times Magazine design issues. "I would tell people I was looking for things from the 50s and people would laugh. Now people take it very seriously."
In 1987 he drove his hatchback to Chicago with his girlfriend Martha Torno (now an owner of Wicker Park's Modern Times). For two years they ran a shop called Torno-Wright on Lincoln Avenue before parting ways. Next, Wright built up modern sales at Oak Park's Treadway Gallery, which did most of its business in Arts and Crafts furniture. Wright left in 1999 and opened Wright Gallery in 2000 with his wife, Julie Thoma-Wright, an interior designer.
He's been in the business for almost 16 years and notes that there have always been those who lament the passing of the "good old days, when you could just go out and fill up a truck." But, he says, "it hasn't dried up. If you collect Arts and Crafts, it's all recycled through collections." Wright's items come from all levels of the food chain: pickers, the hunter-gatherers in the field, dealers, and original owners and estates. Over five auctions the house's reputation has grown and Wright draws pieces from all over the country. "The work starts to find you," he says. "You sell a Bertoia sculpture, and someone sends you four more."
The next auction, on Sunday, March 10, features iconic pieces such as tables and chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson's marshmallow sofa, Jacobsen's egg chair, and prints by Andy Warhol, but also some pieces that have yet to enter the lexicon, such as boldly colored Italian glassware by Fulvio Bianconi and translucent acrylic columns by Vasa Mihich. And Wright swears that buyers don't need deep pockets. "I'm committed to things that have design integrity. We've tried to do that from a $300 item to a $30,000 item."
Wright Gallery is at 1140 W. Fulton, 312-563-0020, and is open Monday through Friday from 10 to 5 and Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 5. If you don't want to spring for the $35 catalog, pieces from the upcoming auction are available on the Web at www.wright20.com, where previous auctions are also archived.