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Historic furniture price comparisons10/30
I am interested in learning a little more about how the relative cost of furniture has changed, or not, in the last 50+ years. As an example, a basic Risom chair, designed to be efficient to manufacture and affordable, now sells from Knoll for $679. As a furnituremaker, this seems like a very reasonable price. As someone living off of a furnituremaker's income, it seems expensive. I'd love to see the price list for Knoll's first catalog in 1942. Does anyone have any scans of old price lists from comparable companies that they'd be willing to share?
I'm no help on your direct question, but chairs are like clocks. Historically, they were rare and owned only by the wealthy. As time and technology advanced, they became a bit more prevalent. Whole towns could pool thier money for a clock in a tower, so everyone knew what time it was. As mass production evolved, and then the machine age, chairs became very approachable and common. Every one could afford one or more.
Today, clocks exist everywhere, even in miniscule chips, and chairs are molded in cheap plastics by the millions.
So people now will own many chairs in their lives, instead of a few good ones. We are taught to redecorate, and style is supposed to change, and as long as there are people with less than us to make the chairs, they will be cheaper.
Thanks, David. I think that it's safe to say that chairs have been fairly common in the developed world for the last 50 years. I get your point about the current disposable furniture, but that's not really the stuff I'm interested in. Unless you're suggesting that today's plastic chair was the Post-War's Risom chair??
Not necessarily. The evolution is linear - price driven down as unit costs go down due to mass acceptance of lower standards. As in the designer that loves Ikea. Because it is so cheap you can throw it away when you tire of it.
Any 20th Century chair designer had to recoup large up front costs for their designs, and real world manufacturing costs kept the prices high. The 3rd world knock off shop has none of that, and cheap labor besides, so can do the same design for much less, tho not kosher so to speak.
Currently, I find it hard to separate celebrity designers - Starck, even Brad Pitt - from career designers that will produce a body of work in their design lifetime. It seems the celebrity culture eats up all the ink and the career joes end up working in other areas.
Here's a random anecdote curtesy of eBay item number 131028307113: no affiliation.
...can't read any of the others.
So I guess the question is whether the price per percentage of net wages in the 50's is similar to the adjusted for inflation price per percentage of net wages today.
It sounds high, don't you think? I think pressure to lower prices has succeeded, overall. Wal-Mart and Ikea rule, and the American furniture manufacturing industry is now about 5% of what it once was. That said, Herman Miller and Knoll and others are doing what they have always done, without threatening to go overseas or come up with gimmicks like the Elvis Bedroom Suite.
I think that those "designers who love Ikea" are caught in the same whirlpool as the working strapped who love Walmart. But to be clear, I'd sell my ink to Mr. Pitt so that he can add "designer" to his celebrity portfolio.
At some point in negotiating projects, you come across the apples to apples argument. I think that historic prices offer another way of looking at this problem. I've had customers tell me that they can see prices at retailers like Design Within Reach as reasonable for the most part, but when you get to those $2k plus Wegner chairs, they feel like they're being asked to pay a celebrity designer premium.
Good point, David.
Good point that the designers are on the same slippery slope as the rest of us with pricing.
What is going on the other side of this is the explosion of wages on the wealthy side. Wealthy was rare and moderate in the 50's, but today it is broad and extreme. The wealthy are much more wealthy and visible, as consumption has become a full time job for even average Americans.
So with all that wealth, why is not the designer furniture market red hot? Or is it, and we just are not aware of it - or a part of it?
I myself have been trying to justify an Eames chair and ottoman for most of my life. I could/would only buy the legit Miller product (and settle for Cherry), but the knock-offs tempt me. I should have bought one 40 years ago. Same for Apple stock, the last Studebaker, and so on.
Yeah, there are too many macro-anecdotes about the "economy" and recent history to be able to nail down any meaningful relationships. Another popular one is that a family of four used to (50's-70's??) be able to live respectfully on one blue collar income. Nationalism? Remnant marketing BS? Truth?
Eames molded plastic armchair:
George Nakashima was only getting $360 for a 60" round dining table in 1969. Unsure of what they retailed for in the late 80's when he passed but they were only worth half of retail once they left the show room floor only because of his prolific carreer ( 30,000 pieces??? does that sound even possible??) But now they have sold for 10's of thousands.
I think "back in the day" they held craftsmanship with higher esteem. The boomers and there after sought cheaper work, plastics, and now with middle incomes will reminiscent and occasionally purchase some good old craftsmanship, new or antique. Material items seem even more consumable and disposable when they are impulse purchased with plastic money. Not so 60~70 years back when a family might save for a couple years to buy a hutch to grace a dining room. Even then it was all production work. The good old days are really the mid 1800's. Wright and many others wrote at the turn of the last century about the down turn of quality in trade and craft during their current eras.
I'm interested in these Post-War designs because many are still being made, the ones that are represent good design and quality construction, and in general they are still relevant today.