A Conversation With Andrew Duncanson and Sebastien Holt

Interviews
A Conversation With Andrew Duncanson and Sebastien Holt
Andrew Duncanson, founder of Modernity
Industry expertise

Andrew Duncanson and Sebastien Holt of Modernity

Seeing one of Modernity’s stands at an art fair gives the perfect sense of the furniture gallery’s philosophy. Take, for example, the 2015 London edition of the Pavilion of Art and Design where they had a large stand with two separate seating areas divided by a beautiful dining table. Two of the three walls had small wooden slats placed close together in what looked like a striped effect. It was something completely out of the ordinary and actually made the furniture interact with the walls as opposed to merely existing within them. To Modernity, furniture pieces aren’t merely being treated as everyday objects, but as unique pieces of art.

Axel Einar Hjorth Furniture at Modernity
Launching The Nordic Design Gallery

Modernity was opened in 1998 by Andrew Duncanson, who comes from Scotland. What led Mr Duncanson to make this move “From Scotland to Sweden” and does his Scottish heritage influence Modernity’s vision?

It was love that brought Andrew Duncanson to Sweden. He had his own company selling contemporary design in Edinburgh, and collecting vintage design was his hobby. His Scottish heritage did not influence his vision, but rather an appreciation of good design and craftsmanship.

Adrian Sassoon At The London House of Modernity

Designed By Woulfe was first introduced to Modernity during a collaboration that you did in London with Adrian Sassoon at the London House of Modernity in October 2020. How do you think that art and furniture communicate with each other within a space?

When talking about collectible furniture pieces, these items can be considered works of art in their own right, but simply expressed in a different medium compared to a painting or piece of sculpture. Within a space, furniture can give art a framework, and also provide a physical framework around the piece. Art and furniture continuously work together to complement and enhance the impact within a home. Modernity is currently running an exhibition with Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, and here clients can see again how art, furniture, lighting and textile can all come together to form a cohesive space and create context.

Chieftain Chair from Modernity.
Sebastien Holt, Director at Modernity
From Painting To Furniture: Art In Various Forms

When considering Modernity’s inventory of exclusive and rare pieces, do you see the line between art and furniture start to blur? Could your inventory be categorised as the Old Masters of the furniture world?

The Oxford Dictionary states that art is the ‘expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’. If you take this definition, you could say that particular pieces of design could be called art. One good example is Paavo Tynell who uses rare snowflake models to play with light and produce an emotional reaction – a similar reaction to that from a piece of art. Modernity’s inventory wouldn’t be considered as the old masters of furniture, as this term tends to refer to a much earlier period. Instead, Modernity’s works are considered the equivalent of modern works of art. Designers from this period put aside the traditions and experimented with form and function. One perfect example of this is the Chieftain Chair, designed by Finn Juhl in 1949, where he experimented with the use of steel as the form for the sculpted armrests.

Matching Your Art To Your Furniture

How would you advise a client on how to maintain the perfect marriage between an artwork and a piece of furniture?

Modernity does not have any rules or constraints when it comes to making a purchase, apart from a piece having to originate from the Nordic countries. The best advice is to buy with your gut feeling and go for what you personally like. Most often if pieces have an intrinsic value in terms of design and quality they will work together. It is often the marriage of two unrelated objects that creates excitement.

Colonial chairs at Modernity
Single Owner Collections & Sales

There has been a shift in the market as auction sales of interiors have given way to single owner sales with entire collections of furniture, paintings, works of art, and sculpture are all sold together. Does this mean that dealers in unique pieces of furniture have had to adapt?

Single owner sales will always be attractive and there seems to be a trend for the larger auction houses to sell the furniture of a collector alongside his or her works of art. This model is especially effective when the owner is famous or had a particularly good eye with a well-known collection.

Determining The Value Of Rare Furniture

How do you measure value when buying a rare and irreplaceable piece of furniture?  Is buying a unique piece of furniture a good investment and will buyers make their money back if they maintain the piece’s quality?

Unique or rare pieces are always the hardest to find and almost always command premium prices. While it is difficult to give guarantees to collectors on whether a piece will increase in value, buying an early edition of a design means that it is likely to maintain its value. Modernity always encourages their clients to buy pieces that they love and understand how and why a design is high-quality. Whilst investment potential can (and should) be taken into account, it is not advisable to buy pieces as standalone investments.

London House of Modernity at Cavendish Square London.
Modernity's London Showroom & Gallery

Being a London based design studio, Designed By Woulfe is constantly exposed to diverse cultures and aesthetics. With its move to the UK, what does Modernity add to this wonderful mix of global tastes?

Of course, London has always been a cultural hub, and home to a diverse art scene and design creativity. When Modernity came to London, we originally planned to open a second gallery space, similar to the original Stockholm store, and use this as a base to work more closely with our UK clients. However, within a few months we came across the building at Cavendish Square, and new ideas emerged into reality. We started with using it as a backdrop for our furniture, but then realised the potential in creating a cultural house (now known as the London House of Modernity) where we could collaborate with other galleries/artists and create something quite spectacular right in the heart of Marylebone. So far, the expansion into London has been far more exciting than first imagined, and we hope to continue along this collaborative path. Who knows what will come next!

Paavo Tynell 'Fantasia' snowflake Chandelier Modernity
Friberg Vases at Modernity
Repurposing Furniture & Design Pieces With Sustainability In Mind

As Modernity is certainly aware, there is currently significant concern, quite rightly, with ethical luxury. How do you advise your clients to approach repurposing pieces and adapting them to new functions?

Our approach is to only deal in design pieces of the very highest quality, whether it be lamps, furniture, art, ceramics or glass. In doing so, we hope that these pieces will last for many years, gaining stories as they are passed along between generations. Most of our fabric chairs have been reupholstered, maintaining the original frame but bringing a new light to the piece.

Of course, there are simple ways to repurpose design pieces by restoring them to their original finish or bringing in new fabrics. Such changes make a huge difference to the feel of the piece, but also work to expand the purpose and give it a new function specific to each owner.

What To Do With Newly-Inherited Furniture

What guidance would you give to someone who has just inherited a collection of furniture and they are unsure whom to approach about valuing the items or selling them?

It is never wrong to obtain several valuations from auction houses and trusted dealers. This way the seller can evaluate the best method of moving forward. You could also look at previous sales to get an idea for how the market is performing. Selling through a dealer is much more secure in terms of the final sale price, but may take longer, so it is really up to the client on what they feel comfortable with.

Peder Moos Dining Table at Modernity
Preserving The Quality Of Your Rare Furniture

Are there any steadfast rules about maintaining the quality of the furniture in your inventory? Recommendations such as not putting pieces in direct sunlight, near a radiator, being careful of water damage, etc.?

We would always advise to use common sense when using furniture in your home. Whether you have new pieces, or vintage, it is similar advice. Leaving wooden furniture in the sun will lighten them over the years, but this can be remedied by refinishing the surface. Again, water damage can also be remedied. There are fixes for most things.

Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management
Guest Interviewer

Tova Ossad

Designed By Woulfe has invited Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management to interview a range of art world personalities. Her fifteen years' experience working in this sphere has exposed her to many artists, auction specialists, art advisors, conservators, and gallerists, thereby giving the Design Journal fresh insight into the fundamentals of art. This series will explore buying, selling, appreciating, and everything in between.

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