The collected works

October 23, 1994|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Special to The Sun

Even before Richard Kondner became an interior designer, he was intrigued by, of all things, chairs.

"I'm fascinated by chairs in general -- I find them unbelievable," marvels the Baltimore-based designer. "Chairs changed people's lives by allowing them to sit down and be comfortable."

So what's a designer who loves chairs to do?

Collect them, of course. Like many interior designers in the Baltimore area, Mr. Kondner has a passion for decorative items. It's easy to understand why: Not only is collecting fun, but a lovingly presented collection that reflects the personality of its owner also makes a room come alive.

Today, Mr. Kondner's collection of mostly antique chairs is approaching the 300 mark. Yet, so far at least, the overflow of furniture hasn't created a storage problem in his Canton high-rise apartment.

That's because the designer collects miniature chairs -- ranging in size from a 3/4 -inch-long, 18-karat, rocking-chair earring that dates from the early 1930s to a few specimens a foot or so high. Most of the "furniture" in his collection fits in the palm of your hand.

The vast collection, which spills off a set of shelves in Mr. Kondner's bedroom onto nearby end tables, night stands and the floor, includes miniature chairs made in France, China, England, Italy, Austria, Holland, Africa, Canada and the United States.

"A collection displayed in a room gives it charm," he says. "Everything in my collection has a specific person or place connected to it -- a memory."

Mr. Kondner started off modestly about four years ago after selling a doll house he had made and keeping the chairs he had commissioned for the project. The 1/4 -inch-scale chairs, some handmade with inlaid wood, cost up to $400 each.

Since then, Mr. Kondner has become a fixture at antiques shows up and down the East Coast in his search for additions to his collection. "I go to the Miami Beach antique show, which is the largest in the world, every year," Mr. Kondner says. "The dealers see me coming and say, 'Here comes the chair man!' It's gotten to the point where I'm afraid to go to shows anymore."

It's easy to understand why. The most expensive chair in the collection cost $3,500: an 1820, hand-etched, mother-of-pearl "Palace Royale" chair made of 18-karat gold. The oldest dates from 1620; it's a Chinese export porcelain chair that set the collector back $2,500.

"It's a very special porcelain and glaze," Mr. Kondner explains. "It's almost an eggplant color. I've never seen anything like it before."

His unusual collection includes a 17th-century porcelain chair from Vienna and a chair in the shape of human hands. "It's a model for Pedro Friedeberg's chair in the Modern Museum of Art in New York," Mr. Kondner says.

Not all the items in Mr. Kondner's chair collection are exquisite miniatures from earlier eras. A 1960s model of a Barcalounger probably served as a coffee-table cigarette box. "It's a hideous chartreuse color," Mr. Kondner notes with a laugh.

While the designer appreciates the fine craftsmanship and beautiful materials that mark the highlights of his collection, it's the variety of shapes and designs that delight him.

Take, for example, the plastic Barbie chair that he paid $3 for in a flea market and the chair made from strips cut from an aluminum soda can. "I think it's incredible that a chair would be made out of a can," Mr. Kondner says. "When I started looking for chairs for my collection, I was fascinated by how different they are. It's not that every chair is a work of art."

Mr. Kondner isn't the only interior designer in town with the urge to collect beautiful and unusual objects or to display them at home. Carol Siegmeister of Taylor/Siegmeister Associates in Mount Vernon, for example, collects miniature jars, antique books and antique pitchers.

"I set out the jars and books on the front desk in my foyer, so it's the first thing you see when you come into the house," Ms. Siegmeister says. "It adds a lot of warmth, and gives my grandchildren things they can rearrange when they visit." The pitchers, mostly pink lusterware and some Staffordshire, fill a corner cupboard in the designer's dining room.

But even more enjoyable than displaying her collections, the interior designer adds, is the actual collecting. "It gives my husband and me something we enjoy doing together when we're on vacation," she says.

And if you don't share identical interests?

"My husband looks for tins he remembers from his childhood -- Ovaltine tins, for example -- and keeps his collection in the kitchen," Ms. Siegmeister says. "A collection can be as few as five or 10 pieces. And it doesn't have to be a big investment. It's just a group of things that's personal and makes you smile.

"It's anything that catches your fancy," Ms. Siegmeister adds. "You're investing in your own identity, not a lot of money."

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