Mark Hill has more than 20 years’ experience in the antiques industry, including stints at Sotheby’s and Bonhams, giving him a wide-ranging knowledge of antiques and a particular interest in 20th century designers, makers and styles. He is an author and publisher (he has written more than 30 books), TV presenter, and is a leading dealer in post-war Czech and 20th century art glass. Mark is a frequent visitor to, and sometimes exhibits at, the Decorative Fair.
We had a chat with Mark about the subject of Colour and Form, and how it has informed and shaped the artists and designers of the 20th century.
You have wide-ranging knowledge of design from antique to modern – what drew you particularly to specialise in the work of 20th century designers and makers?
I was so grateful that working at Sotheby’s and Bonhams in the late 90s introduced my eyes and mind to so many diverse objects from so many countries and centuries. As I worked through what was effectively an apprenticeship, I realised that the 18th & 19th centuries, and even the early 20th century, seemed to be so well ‘trawled’. There seemed to be such an opportunity for going down multiple journeys of discovery with postwar design – I simply couldn’t resist. Who doesn’t love learning something new, and with a good story and lovely objects to boot? But, most of all, the pieces themselves appealed greatly in terms of their vibrant colours, fascinating forms, and the quality of design and manufacture. This was also a period of experimentation and change, culturally, socially and economically – and the objects reflect that. Glass in particular spoke, or rather yelled, at me with its jewel-like colours and variety of forms and it soon became a personal and then professional passion. My father is a retired Formula One engineer and always taught me that to understand an object properly, you have to understand how it was made, and the often complex techniques required to create both in this mercurial medium added further appeal.
Form and shape is integral to a great design, whatever the period – what in your opinion sets apart a great and lasting piece from an indifferently designed object?
In short, there’s a beauty in the balance, or imbalance. Just like great music or art, viewing or using a piece of great design where form, colour, pattern and function synchronise makes the spirit soar. A form may be simple and proportional to showcase a pattern or a colour. Or the form may echo or add to the colour, or vice versa. Or one element may stand out and fascinate against the complimentary or contrasting backdrop of the rest of the design. Looking through ‘A Dictionary of Color Combinations’ by the Japanese artist Sanzo Wada (1883-1967) exemplifies much of this. Although the colour charts are wonderful, the related accompanying Japanese prints and textile designs are beautiful, combining form and pattern with colour to great, often harmonic, success. You can see this in some of the designs submitted by dealers here. It’s food for the eye, mind and soul, causing us to pause a moment to savour it – a delicious but rare event in our busy, multi-tasked lives. Pretentious? Qui? Moi?
What is your favourite design style (from the antique period – and from the modern? (with a few words as to why)
In all honesty, it depends on my current mood and my constantly changing ‘obsessionettes’. Any time, any place, anywhere. I love the complexity and camp of many (currently very unfashionable) High Victorian designs, where designers often mixed styles and often ‘turned up the volume’ in terms of detail. A century or so later, I think 1980s Postmodernism by the likes of Memphis and Alchimia, with its riot of geometric forms, historical references, and vibrant clashing colours is great and set to rise higher and higher. I’m also increasingly drawn to pieces by names we don’t know and may never know – folk and ‘outsider’ art can have an honesty to it that I find endlessly appealing. But glass is always there, particularly the ground-breaking mid-century modern designs produced in Czechoslovakia under the unlikely circumstances of Communist rule. Pavel Hlava and Frantisek Vizner in particular were masters at working with colour and form in glass in this new postwar language.
Until the latter half of the 19th century when the Impressionists began to push the boundaries of perception, and used new ways to depict what they saw, art was always figurative – recognisable figures, still lives, interiors etc. Modern art broke free from life-like representations. How did artists such as Picasso and Mondrian, or Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, revise our perceptions of form and colour?
That’s a big question! Perhaps things were allowed to become less obvious. So much art from the 19th century and before was used to tell a story to educate or illustrate – it had to be clear. Much modern art still does tell a story that but, as society developed over time, there was a freedom to explore other dimensions such as the visual effect of colour, form and pattern and the effects that these elements, sometimes in a reduced or raw state, can have on us as viewers. And, over time as society developed, we viewers were also able to increasingly enjoy the luxury of viewing such work.
Who is your favourite modern artist (or school of art?) and why?
It’s always been the Italian born painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). There’s great balance to his work, whether painted or sculpted in Carrara marble. He experimented widely and, when you really look at it, his mature work was truly multicultural with its combination of influences from Africa, Greece, Egypt, Rome, the modern art movement of the Paris School, and even his Jewish family background.
We have all spent so much time at home over the past year: what have you most appreciated about your own collection of art and objects? Have you “re-found” a special item? Or been inspired to delve in to new areas of interest? I.e. do you have a new-found design love and will you be dashing out to start adding to your collection when more fairs are back up and running??!!
I think my greatest, and certainly my cheapest, joy has been looking at the things I already own. From pictures on my stairs that I usually pass in a hurry and so rarely *look* at, to revisiting unknown mysteries I bought because they appealed in terms of the quality of their design and technique. It’s not fair on these pieces, they deserve more attention from me and I’ve enjoyed many voyages of discovery over the past year. Inuit sculpture from the mid-late 20th century also resurfaced and grew as an obsessionette of mine – but only the more abstract forms by the likes of John Kavik, Andy Miki, and John Pangnark. Made in the frozen Arctic, many works rival sculptures by renowned modern European sculptors in my mind, despite there being no connection at all between the two. I’d love to find more of that.
Tell us why you love the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair so much?
Passion. Not just the passion of the dealers who attend, which they are so keen to share, but also the passion the objects and the displays that they make up inspire in me. It’s a feast for the eyes and mind and I’ve never left a Dec Fair without buying at least one thing. My favourite past finds include a charming, tactile abstract Inuit sculpture of a bird, the form reduced to absolute essentials, and a superb vase by studio glass pioneer Sam Herman (1936-2020). Both are keepers, the bird lives in arms’ reach on my desk and the vase in our kitchen and dining area, so I can enjoy it many times a day.
Read Mark’s blog and browse and buy books and mid-century modern art glass and more at www.markhill.net.
Picture credits, from top: 1/2. With thanks to the BBC Antiques Roadshow; 3. 1960s-70s Czechoslovakian Exbor flashed and cut vases designed by Ladislav Oliva from 1968-74; 4. Cooper Events/Nick Matthews.
We are delighted to have chatted with Flora Soames on the occasion of our Great British Style Pop-Up. One of the UK’s new generation of leading British interior designers, Flora is a regular visitor to the Decorative Fair.
Flora Soames set up her design consultancy business in 2009. One of House and Garden’s Top 100, her discerning eye and instinct for channelling both old and new has been formed through a lifetime love of collecting furniture, textiles and accessories. With a background in both the furniture and art worlds, Flora’s design philosophy is based on retaining the essence of a building or interior whilst adapting the design in a way that is comfortable, stylish and practical.
Flora has developed her first fabric collection which launched in June 2019. This new chapter is driven by her passion for colour, texture and heritage in design.
Here’s what we talked about:
When you think of British interior style, what springs to mind?
What I love about quintessentially British style is that the idea of conforming to any one trend or aesthetic rarely sticks, and eclecticism is at the heart of true British interior design.
Do you have a favourite period of British design?
There’s no one specific period that I collect but I would certainly say that early 20th century furniture, art and textiles always interests me. The crude nature of some Arts and Crafts designs, combined with the scale and often quite simple compositions, provides a real presence in a room.
As one of the new generation of classic British interior designers, what inspires you from the past and today?
It goes without saying that design of note today always derives from somewhere or something, and it’s therefore really important to continue to be openly inspired by, and give credit to, the extraordinary examples of interior designers and makers spanning the centuries. For me, drawing from these influences and with a fresh and confident eye hopefully results in work with its own originality and integrity.
You are renowned for your love of textiles – as a decorator and as a designer of your own fabric and wallpaper collection, many of which are influenced by antique pieces you have collected over the years. Please tell us more about why they appeal to you and how are textiles a key element of your own style?
From a very early age, the colours, patterns and textures of textiles spanning the centuries have always appealed to me – I’m drawn to a metallic thread in an unusual beaten up old weave like a moth to a flame! A sense of patina in any room is of real importance to me and it is these pieces that provide that character and sense of layering. In terms of how I translate these early works into new designs is hinged on what I feel their reincarnation brings to a room, and I find the process of developing a collection of textiles using traditional techniques endlessly gratifying.
Tell us why you love the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair so much?
I wouldn’t miss the Decorative Fair for anything, and I long to attend in person again soon. The cross-section of dealers and sense of enthusiasm for what they do is infectious. I’ve never walked away with something for both myself and for a client that we weren’t both thrilled with (and likely as not didn’t anticipate necessarily needing, nor buying!)
Thank you Flora – and we look forward to seeing you at our next Fair very soon.
You can see the Flora Soames fabric and wallpaper collection, inspired by lifetime love of collecting unique textiles spanning the centuries, and all printed or woven in dedicated British mills, here https://www.florasoames.com/