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The 20th Century brought us some intriguing designs that are fast becoming valuable collectables. Here, guest designer at Decorex Cape Town, Emma de Crespigny of C20 Galerie in Woodstock, Cape Town advises us on collecting and decorating with 20th Century design in mind.

What defines a 20th century collectable? A designed piece for or after the Paris Exposition of 1900 is collectable. Generally, if you categorise each design style e.g Art Deco within 20th century and sub-divide by the countries France, Germany, Belgium, USA, Italy and England, you can determine groups of collectable items. The most collectable pieces are those created by individual designers for manufacturing companies. A good example would be Charles Eames for Herman Miller chairs in the 1950s in the USA.

Who were the most important designers of the 20th century? The most important designers of the 20th century, or some of the major ones I would say, are Le Corbusier for his influence on modernism, Charles Eames for his invention of lightweight bent plywood furniture, Raymond Loewy (industrial designer) who restyled the kitchen refrigerator in the 1930s using the streamlined style to make them look more appealing to the eye (therefore helped Sears sell them to housewives) and Ettore Sotsass, because he did the same as Loewy for kitchen equipment, but for office machinery making typewriters lighter and more appealing to office workers. These designs have all endured because they were the first efforts made by the pioneers of the modern era, which is still familiar to people today.

What is the difference between Mid-century and Modernist design? Modernist work is defined by the use of new materials which applies to both architecture and furniture design. The modernists introduced the use of new materials including concrete, glass and metal. One of the main concerns at that time was hygiene, and creating more hygienic interiors. Modernists designed with a consideration for bringing in lots of light and airflow through large glass windows and creating furniture that could be easily cleaned and moved around. One of the most important tenets of Modernist theory was that ‘form should follow function'.

The Modernists were against the use of applied ornamentation believing the materials to be intrinsically beautiful, therefore ornamental in themselves. By the 1950s, the mid-century, designers would still use the new materials but wood became popular again and they often upholstered the more lightweight furniture, particularly sofas and armchairs. The style is also different. 1950s pieces are often raised on wooden or metal slanted tubular legs, the colours are specific to the 1950s with the use of pastels in kitchen equipment and woven wool textiles in the upholstery. If you have ever seen the first few seasons of Mad Men you can see the style of American mid-century used in corporate offices. This idea was pioneered by Florence Knoll of Knoll Furniture, who manufactured the upholstery materials, and continues to do so today. Mid-century design was only used in public spaces initially before moving into people’s homes soon after.

Do you believe 20th Century antiques work with contemporary design? And what advice do you give your clients who want to combine the old and the new? This is the very direction that interior design is taking: decorating rooms that combine eclectic styles, which would include mixing the old with the new. When you think about it, the same ideas on design back in the 1920s are still applicable today. The Art Deco practitioners, for example, believed that you should not add ornamentation to designed objects. They believed that the materials themselves were intrinsically beautiful and so used exotic woods and natural forms to represent this idea.

They also believed in incorporating foreign motifs into their work, including African, Egyptian, Middle Eastern and Asian, so in a sense, the elements within their pieces were already exhibiting an eclectic sensibility. The silhouettes today continue to use simple, clean lines using new materials on the markets as well as, like Modernists, metals and glass in furniture design. So, each period utilises the same principles to some extent. As the world has become more globalised, it makes sense to mix pieces from all over the world. It actually works aesthetically. I think the key when you decorate a room is to have some key well-designed signature pieces from any place or time period before working on the rest of the room in order to bring some cohesion to the overall scheme.

Look out for Emma De Crespigny at the Belgotex Trend House at Decorex Cape Town from 25 to 28 April 2014 at the CTICC.