Collectors of Mid-Century Modern furniture see it all the time: well-made, clean Mid-Mod case goods and upholstery with no manufacturer’s tags or markings. In most cases, the buyer has only the seller's word that an item is authentic. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to call a manufacturer to verify that a piece is authentic?
Case in point: I recently attended an auction where a set of "Adrian Pearsall" chairs were offered. Actually, the auctioneer stated: "Next up lot XYZ, which appear to be a set of Adrian Pearsall Craft Associates dining chairs." Note the auctioneer's mis-direct: these "appeared to be" Craft Associates chairs, but they weren't. At an auction, the operative phrase is "buyer beware"; most auctioneers leave authentication of an item to the bidders. Judging by the way the bidding progressed, the audience clearly thought that these were Craft Associates chairs. I knew they weren't; Craft Associates never made chairs with composite bases. These chairs were Pearsall designs, manufactured by Lane.
Currently, vintage Mid-Century Modern furniture is in demand, especially genuine Adrian Pearsall Craft Associates pieces. But, since authentic Mid-Mod styles were only in production for about twenty-five years (sixteen for Craft Associates) demand for this furniture has out-stripped supply. Mid-Mod reproductions have become big sellers. There's nothing wrong with that - reproductions of popular furniture designs have been around for centuries. Legitimate dealers of new reproductions sell them as such, and there is no fraud involved. But authentic Mid-Mod furniture usually sells for more money than reproductions, so some unscrupulous vintage furniture dealers sell new, reproduction Mid-Mod as vintage.
The family of designer Adrian Pearsall agrees that there are too many Pearsall fakes being sold as genuine, and they have taken steps to curb the trend. If buyers or sellers send photographs of an item in question, the family will research the item and, if it is genuine, issue a certificate of authenticity. The fee for the service is $50; the contact address is http://www.adrianpearsall.com
Of course, the service offered by the family is only for Pearsall furniture designs; most manufacturers of Mid-Mod are long gone and it's not possible to contact them. That's too bad, because the "knock-off" problem is ubiquitous in the furniture business, especially in the United States. In the U.S., furniture designs are not covered by intellectual property laws. Some furniture elements may be protected: trademarks, assembly or hardware patents, and machinery; but furniture that "looks like" other furniture is impossible to protect. Author Beth Macy points out in her best-selling book Factory Man that one of the most significant problems faced by John Basset III in his fight against furniture "off-shoring" was that Asian factories copied his designs and undercut his prices. Since the largest market for furniture – vintage or otherwise – is in the United States, Asian and Indonesian manufacturers take their design cues from American manufacturers.
So how are collectors to recognize authentic Adrian Pearsall Craft Associates furniture? Short of paying an appraiser or the Pearsalls, here are some tips for identifying genuine Craft Associates furniture:
1. Ensure that the components are "natural": look for real woods, glass, or metal parts. Composites - plastics made to look real - were not used.
2. The overall styling of pieces is what's called "atomic". In conjuring a vision of atomic-styled furniture, ask yourself if the item would fit well on the set of a 1950s "B" science fiction movie like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, or perhaps the AMC television series "Mad Men". Pearsall's dining and occasional chairs will be recognized by their high backs, angled arms, warm woods (such as walnut), shaped-wood accents, and neck pillows. Early dining chair models featured wrought iron bases. Occasional tables featured angular and curved wooden bases and glass tops. Sofas employed broad, sweeping shapes.
3. Remember that authentic Craft Associates items are forty-seven to sixty-three years old, and will have been used regularly for most of that time. That means that wooden parts may have dents and scratches, traces of silicone furniture polish, or wax buildup. Areas of body contact (chair arms especially) may display worn finish, and finishes that were not properly maintained may show hairline cracks. Leg caps may be pitted. If the wood finish looks brand-new, the item has either been refinished or it's a reproduction.
4. Original "modern" fabrics of the 1950s and 1960s were brightly colored, and solids prevailed over patterns. Upholstery is more difficult than wood to analyze, because it doesn't wear as well and is re-done more often. Fabrics fade, seams rip, support systems collapse, and filling materials compress.
The best way to determine if a piece has its original upholstery fabric is to remove a section and look for staple holes in the frame. Pieces that have been re-done will have too many holes for the number of staples used. It's unlikely that a seller will let you remove upholstery, even if you know what you're doing and have the tools to do the job. It's fairly easy to unzip a cushion and inspect the inside, though. New padding (foam) of any sort will look new; if it's yellowed, it's old and likely original.
Of course, if you intend to use a vintage sofa in your home and it's worn and ugly you will want to have it re-upholstered anyway. There are firms that specialize in restoring Pearsall and other Mid-Mod items; be sure that the firm you use is experienced and uses original-style fabric.
5. Compare the item you're inspecting with online photos of Pearsall designs. You have to be careful here, though; often the catalogs posted are internal to the seller and may include knock-offs. In other words, the items listed in retailer catalogs represent their inventory of Pearsall designs rather than a complete Pearsall catalog. Exercise caution when making online comparisons; some items listed may be reproductions.
Kudos to the Pearsall family for their efforts to authenticate original Craft Associates furniture (also, I believe, other Pearsall design projects including Davison-Pearsall, Comfort Designs, and Lane). For buyers and sellers alike, nothing supports value better than a certificate of authenticity from a reliable source.