Life & Style | Home & Interiors

Hunting for vintage furniture

Guillaume Cuiry, founder of La Galerie Nationale and expert in original twentieth century art furniture, talks to InsideOut about million-euro polar bear-inspired sofas and discovering designer pieces in Peru

  • By Angela Boshoff Hundal, Features Editor, InsideOut magazine
  • Published: 00:00 May 15, 2012
  • InsideOut

  • Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • Guillaume Cuiry is the founder of La Galerie Nationale.
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Furniture design is… all about aesthetics and taste. Having said that, all the original vintage pieces I showcase are ‘thinking' designs, meaning they are practical to use. Original twentieth century designers really considered the comfort factor while crafting their furniture, contemplating how one's back would fit the curve of a seat, how the legs might rest while sitting. This is incredible considering the fact that they did not have computers or machines to help them. The most surprising aspect is how modern they look when in actual fact they're 50 to 80 years old.

Art furniture is… an investment. Fifteen years ago you would have been able to purchase an ‘Ours Polaire' (polar bear) sofa, for which the original name was Boule or Banane, by Jean Royère for €20,000. Now the same piece will sell for no less than €1 million. Ninety per cent of the designers whose pieces we own have passed away and because we have a database of almost all of their work, I am aware of everything they created and can immediately see if something is a copy. There are only ten to 15 pieces per item - sometimes fewer - so there will never be another piece quite like the one you purchase.

We're like modern-day treasure hunters… La Galerie Nationale has two experts who spend all of their time searching for original twentieth century designer furniture around the world and it can take ten to 20 years to track down an item. We usually start off with an archive that points us to the designer piece that was drawn for a wealthy family from a certain part of Europe in a certain decade, for example. We then work backwards, tracking down the family and trying to find out where the piece is today. For example in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties many European and American designers worked in the Middle East and we've since discovered serious pieces of art furniture in famous villas across Iran, Egypt and Lebanon.

One of our most exhilarating searches… involved looking for some of Parisian designer Jean Royère's items. He designed pieces for a famous villa in São Paulo around 1952 and in those days if you were commissioned to do an international house it wasn't a matter of simply boarding a plane; you had to close up shop, pack your bags - including tools, textiles and wools - board a ship and be away for several months. We think Jean, who was also an architect, spent around six months there and we managed to find old photographs that he had taken of surrounding villas from inside the house he was working from. We gathered these photographs and virtually recreated the suburb in which he was living and once we could see what it looked like, we sent someone from our team to São Paulo to look for the original villa. When he arrived, the man living there told us that it was his grandfather who had commissioned Jean Royère but he had since divorced and moved to Argentina with a new wife. In the end we found 80 per cent of the São Paulo pieces being used to reinforce the frame of a chicken coop on a farm in Peru! The rest had been painted blue and were being used as garden furniture.

Each piece we showcase has a story… A shy, old gentleman arrived in the Paris gallery years ago. It emerged that the man, a former electrician, had been neighbour to a workshop in the area in the Forties and Fifties. The owner of that workshop was none other than Jean Royère. This electrician had little money but he loved Royère's lamps so much that the designer sold him one at a very special price. The old man told me that after his wife died he wanted the piece to have a new life in her memory. It was such a moving story I bought the lamp from him at the highest price the gallery could possibly afford.

The furniture in my house… changes all the time because I keep pieces for the gallery and sell them as I go. I am lucky that I have an understanding wife! There have been days when she has come home and the sofa is missing, or the dining table has been sold. I think it used to bother her, but now she finds it exciting.

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The first designer pieces I bought… for myself were Marco Zanuso armchairs from the Fifties. I found myself in a dark warehouse using my mobile phone as a source of light, picking through pieces of armchair to see if I could put them all together. They were in an awful condition but in the end I refurbished them and found myself with two beautiful chairs. Of course all the time and work that goes into each of these items is costly, which is why they are not cheap. It's important that people understand the effort that goes into bringing original vintage furniture back to life. Certain pieces have been showcased in the Louvre Museum so there's a lot of pressure to ensure every item is as original as possible, down to the screws. We have to provide certificates of authenticity so if a piece is not 100 per cent original we are open and honest about it.

We're showcasing history… in the form of art furniture. The UAE should have the opportunity to experience original vintage items. The best way for people to understand twentieth century design is to come to my gallery and see the pieces first-hand.

www.galerie-nationale.com

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