Reproductions of modern classics may be the best bet

DESIGN LINE

April 16, 1995|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Los Angeles Times Syndicate 4,18l Many people love the look of what's become known as the "20th-century classics." But when it comes to actually furnishing their homes with either originals or reproductions of these pieces, most admirers find the potential problems to be a big turnoff.

For starters, fine examples of this furniture aren't easy to come by. Some pieces were made as long ago as the 1920s, and they have all but vanished from the commercial market. More recent originals may occasionally be found, but their price tags are often a cause for alarm. Truly lucky scavengers may happen upon a reasonably priced 20th-century classic at some out-of-the-way flea market, but the chances of it being in good repair are pretty slim.

And fixing up this kind of furniture can involve difficulties. The lacquers and synthetics that made its mass production possible are also what makes its repair a daunting undertaking. It's usually quite hard to restore these materials and finishes to their original condition.

Reproductions are a better bet in several respects. But don't assume that they are fully faithful to the original designs. Wooden pieces, in particular, are often changed in their scale in order to be more adaptable to contemporary spaces. And even when they are not significantly altered in size, most reproductions still do not duplicate the originals, owing to the different types of tools and woods used in their construction. Besides, a newly reproduced piece can never display the patina acquired as a result of years of use.

Today's technology, however, does permit exact reproductions of 20th-century furniture that was manufactured industrially.

The accompanying photo of the so-called Johnson Wax Desk is a good example of such a successful reproduction. The piece on which it is modeled was designed in 1936 by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Johnson administration building in Wisconsin. It was intended to function as an office work station, with a steel structure supporting three wooden desk tops. Wright's innovative design also featured various drawers, racks and brackets in a choice of woods or multicolored synthetics. This piece is the inspiration for many of the work stations found in today's open-space offices.

The reproduction version of the Johnson Wax Desk is manufactured in Italy by Cassina and is now being marketed throughout Europe and in the United States. Under a recent licensing agreement, Cassina has also embarked on a larger program involving precise reproductions of the works of other major designers of the modern movement.

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