We recently featured a Paris loft by modernist dealer-designer Florence Gomez with a prized set of coffee tables by midcentury American designer Luther Conover. Who is he?, I wondered (and not just because his last name happens to be the same as my husband’s). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able turn up much on my potential in-law, but while I was deep in that rabbit hole, I kept discovering work by other great all-but-forgotten California designers of the fifties and sixties.
Peter Loughrey, founder of LA Modern Auctions (LAMA), which is holding its next art and design sale on February 21, corroborates: “There’s a huge interest in modern furniture, but Eames is really the only California name we all know.” Loughrey says the work of many other talents is still ripe for discovery. You just have to know to look for it (and hope to find yourself at the right yard sale). A good place to bone up on the subject is the catalogue from the LACMA show Living in A Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 and companion Handbook of California Design.
Here are six midcentury California designers we have our eyes on. Good investments? Hard to predict, but while the market for classic antiques is at a pronounced lull, sales of clean-lined, cool-cat furniture are undeniably booming.
A member of what came to be known as the Pacific Design Group, Luther Conover worked out of Sausalito—and is said to have initially enlisted high-schoolers as his assistants. Celebrated for experimenting with post-WWII army surplus materials such as rebar, he’s known for his metal and wood designs and molded fiberglass armchairs.
Above: A rakish mahogany and iron Luther Conover Lounge Chair is available from Berkeley dealer Just in Modern; price on request.
Above: Fireplace tools attributed to Conover are plentiful on eBay. This Brass and Iron Set is on offer for $279.
Above: Wright, a Chicago auction house specializing in modern design, sold this set of Nesting Tables for $3,000 (three times the estimate) in 2012. Wright is holding its next American Design sale on February 11.
Muriel Coleman, who got an MFA from Columbia in 1936 and studied in Paris with Andre Lhote, was part of the Pacific Design Group with Conover. During World War II, she deciphered photos of the French coast for the precursor to the CIA. After the war, she put her family farm-tool manufacturing business to work using industrial materials to create her signature minimalist designs.
Above: A Muriel Coleman Iron and Wood Wall Shelf, which can be used as a room divider, is available from Just in Modern via 1st Dibs; price on request.
Dorothy Shindele was introduced to us by Loughrey (who in addition to running LAMA is a longtime appraiser for Antiques Roadshow). He noted that George Nelson featured Shindele’s designs in his seminal 1950 book Chairs.
Above: Sold for $385 for a set of six on Chairish, these Dorothy Shindele dining chairs came out of the seller’s LA childhood home.
The LA architect credited with creating the lap pool in the early seventies, Cleo Baldon designed indoor-outdoor furniture that captured the Southern California good life. She worked beachside in Venice, California, as design director of Galper-Baldon Associates, had her own foundry to control fabrication of her designs, and with her film director husband, Ib Melchior, wrote the books California Designs for Swimming and Steps & Stairways. Baldon passed away in 2014 and several pieces from her own Hollywood Hills home are being offered in LAMA’s February 21 auction.
Above: A Cleo Baldon Iron and Oak Occasional Table from the late fifties—25 inches tall and 30 inches in diameter—is available from Red Modern Furniture of Phoenix for $2,800. A similar design with a marble top and set of five patio chairs is in the February 21 LAMA auction, estimated at $2,000 to $3,000 (see lot 359).
Above: One of Baldon’s signatures was pairing modernist forms with Spanish Colonial detailing. A pair of 1965 Cleo Baldon Stools for Terra is $1,600 from Reform Gallery on Melrose Avenue in LA via 1st Dibs. Also in the February 21 LAMA auction: An identical pair of stools in original condition with a companion game table, estimated at $2,000 to $3,000 (see lot 350).
John Keal was a member of the gang of talented designers (Paul Frankl, Paul Lazlo, and Gilbert Rhode included), who worked for LA furniture manufacturer Brown-Saltman in the fifties. The company’s tagline: “Live in the Modern Mode.”
Above: This John Keal Expanding Coffee Table for Brown-Saltman is made of walnut and black laminate. It’s 66 inches long and extends to 96 inches; available for $3,200 via Danish Modern LA. (Note: A search on Etsy turns up several vendors selling this design; prices vary considerably, and condition of the piece and location of the dealer are things to take into consideration.)
Chicken or the egg? Maurice Martiné, another Loughrey favorite, was based in Laguna Beach and designed lounges in the late forties that have similar lines to Paul McCobb’s more famous Shovel Chair.
Above: Martiné offered his lounge chair with wood dowels or rope cords on the seat and back. This example sold for an unknown amount on 1st Dibs.
Information needed: There’s surprisingly little biographical information out there about the designers we’ve featured. Any details? Please fill us in in the Comments section.
Our favorite bargain furniture shopping? Go to Editors’ Picks: 10 Favorite Sources for Vintage Furniture.