D esign can do many things: solve a problem, serve a function, elevate our surroundings. But its most lasting contribution is to capture the spirit of its own moment. It is no coincidence that as modern life has accelerated, design has flourished, registering the zeitgeist with unerring precision. It often does so, interestingly, through a kind of time travel: revisiting the past for inspiration, illuminating fictional narratives, and projecting possible futures.
Across three auctions, Sotheby’s Design Week presents an extraordinary series of masterworks, each a defining creation of its moment. They radiate conviction, not least through the direct means of their making, by the hands of their creators. They are so eloquent of their times that they cannot but speak powerfully to our own.
Alexandre Noll Sculptures
One could say that Alexandre Noll formed himself three times: once on the battlefields of World War I; then back in Paris, center of the avant garde; and finally, when he embraced woodcarving as an expressive medium, in the 1930s. Up until then, Noll had been fashioning small accessories such as umbrella handles and lamp bases, so he had planks of exotic wood arriving to his studio. These seem to have inspired his new direction: furniture and sculpture of profound, primal character. This idiom arguably had its roots in his turbulent wartime experience, and in French Surrealism. But, then and now, it also seemed to come out of nowhere: instantaneous creations, born of the encounter between artist and material.
Diego Giacometti’s Console
Can a table also be a picture? How about a fable? These questions come to mind when looking at Diego Giacometti’s console, with its attenuated figures of a stag and a fox on either side of a single tree. It is as close to a drawing as metalwork can get, the pictorial quality enhanced by the framing elements of the table’s top, legs and stretchers. Giacometti — younger brother and frequent collaborator of the great sculptor Alberto — seems to capture, here, a fleeting glimpse of nature. Yet his animal characters are clearly archetypes. They are inhabitants of a forest on a moonlit night, perhaps; but also of legend.
Jean Prouvé’s Refectory Table
As Europe teetered on the brink of war, in 1939, Jean Prouvé received an unlikely commission to furnish a shoreline summer camp. For the refectory, or canteen, he created a set of thirty tables. They are constructed from his signature folded metal, with tops in an unexpected material: concrete. Rows of circular perforations at each end held cylindrical napkin holders. Prouvé may have been a highly skilled metalworker, but his idea of beauty was an airplane wing. He sought to deploy the rigor and force of the machine age everywhere. Even on holiday.
Marc Newson’s Pod of Drawers
“Steal from the best.” No one has followed that advice, often given to aspiring designers, better than Marc Newson in his Pod of Drawers. The form is explicitly modeled on an Art Deco classic, André Groult’s anthropomorphic chiffonier of 1925. Newson totally reimagined the design, building the case in fiberglass sheathed with cut-out aluminum plates. Like his related Lockheed Lounge, it is exquisitely handmade, yet conveys a high-tech, almost science fiction aesthetic. This gleaming surface was well calibrated to the prevailing look of the 1980s, but the piece has far transcended that context now, becoming a classic in its own right.
Joseph Walsh Table
Fly to Dublin, hop on a train to Cork, then drive down some increasingly rustic roads, and you’ll eventually reach one of the most extraordinary design workshops on earth. This is the studio of Joseph Walsh, a local boy made astonishingly good. Here he has gathered an all-star cast of artisanal talent to realize his visionary, next-level furniture. A genius with bentwood, Walsh also incorporates materials like resin and stone into his creations. They boggle the mind in their technical perfection and more importantly, their lyrical beauty. They are resonant proof that the fine art of making is still alive and well, sometimes in unlikely places, and right at the forefront of design.
Tiffany’s Turtle-Back Lamp
There’s nothing quite like turning on a Tiffany lamp. Their glittering polychrome shades would be beautiful in any circumstances, but once lit, they blaze into something truly glorious. And while Tiffany did reach back into time for inspiration — in the case of this golden lamp, with its inset “turtle-back” tiles, to the reliquaries of the middle ages — the firm’s creations were also totally modern. Electric lighting was then a new phenomenon, which Louis Comfort Tiffany actually helped introduce to the public (he collaborated with Thomas Edison on the Lyceum on New York’s Broadway, America’s first electrified theater). In the magnificent glow of his lamps, you can feel the magic of seeing artificial illumination for the very first time.
Wharton Esherick’s Jeeter
For two decades, this jaunty carved horse stood outside the Hedgerow Theater in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Wharton Esherick was a sort of artist-in-residence at this outpost of literary modernism, making seating, staircases and sculptures for the theater, all by hand. Jeeter, together with another horse named Cheeter, greeted visitors at the door. (The curious names were a play on that of Hedgerow’s founder, Jasper Deeter.) Wonderfully animated, it has the simple but affecting lines of an antique rocking horse, but also seems to lean into the future: a new world, defined by dynamic abstraction.
Wendell Castle’s Stool Sculpture
Wendell Castle, a lifelong pioneer, started his journey with Stool Sculpture. Made when he was a student at Kansas University, it established a whole new category of object — or maybe transcended category altogether, floating free from previous expectations about furniture and sculpture alike. Made of salvaged gunstock blanks and originally inlaid with ivory (since replaced with a substitute material), it is at once dynamic and refined. You could, in theory, sit in it (the crosspiece on the front is a footrest). But it’s mainly meant for looking at, and wondering about. Here, at the outset of his career, Castle discovered a new territory. He would explore it for more than six decades.
Hans Coper Ceramics
The curator Oliver Watson once described Hans Coper as “quite simply the most important post-war potter in the UK, if not worldwide.” Many would agree, though perhaps making an exception for Lucie Rie, with whom Coper was close, and shared a studio. Their work was very different — hers, articulate and refined; his, totemic and massive — but together they established a benchmark for modernism in ceramics that was never surpassed. Working mostly in whites, blacks and grays, Coper seemed to distill his discipline to its absolute essence, rather as Constantin Brancusi had done for sculpture a few decades earlier.
George Nakashima’s International Paper table
In his 1981 book The Soul of a Tree, George Nakashima wrote, “In ages past, it would have been easy to join a crusade, to become a member of a community dedicated to building a great cathedral, to hew the great timbered doors, to carve a spirit in stone to grace the glorious facade. But one must work alone, building objects of wood.” This table, originally for the offices of the International Paper Company in New York, shows how he brought this credo, with its roots in time-honored tradition, to modern surroundings. It has the feeling of a stately tree, felled right into the room.
Judy Kensley McKie’s Jaguar Bench
In all of furniture history, you’ll never see better lines. This was Judy Kensley McKie’s not-at-all-secret weapon: an instantly recognizable contour that quickens the animals of her menagerie to life. McKie’s magisterial Jaguar Bench, cast in bronze from her original carving, is one of her great compositional achievements. The answering curves of the neck and tail act as parentheses for an unexpectedly elongated body (the better to sit on). The front and rear legs drop to the floor at slightly different angles, perfectly conjuring a predator at rest.
Gustav Stickley’s Corner Cabinet
In 1902, Gustav Stickley was in his prime. He had just begun publishing The Craftsman magazine, and after decades of working in the furniture industry, had finally developed his own distinctive design sensibility. His massive, squared oak forms were inspired by medieval joinery, but also announced a bold new vision of what furniture could be and mean. This corner cabinet, outfitted with long copper strap hinges, would ideally have anchored a whole room furnished in Stickley’s manner. Honest and uncompromising, it’s an imposing monument of the Arts and Crafts era.
Design Week is on view at Sotheby’s New York 3–9 June.