Upon setting foot in Troy Seidman’s Toronto loft, one has the immediate sensation of having travelled back in time a few decades, as the 1,500-square-foot space, occupying the second floor of a nondescript low-rise building in the city’s Queen West neighbourhood, contains a treasure trove of mid-century modern lighting, furniture, housewares and art, much of it originating from the 1960s.
Seidman, though, is no retro-loving Austin Powers wannabe. Rather, he’s the proprietor of Caviar20, an online retailer selling hard-to-find 20th-century decor. “This isn’t a shop, though,” he is quick to point out (although anyone wishing to examine a piece in person can make an appointment and swing by).
Having more than 14 years of experience in the acquisition and resale of vintage furniture, Seidman is more than qualified to give any fans (and budding collectors) of sixties style a crash course in the era’s design. “The decade was all about change, both technologically and culturally,” he says, seated at a vintage glass dining table strewn with books and periodicals about that time. “With the advent of things like moulded plastics, designers got to really experiment and create cutting-edge work. Plus, you can’t forget about the whole man-on-the-moon thing, which made everyone fascinated with space and excited about the future.”
Among the ways that designers expressed this new sense of adventure and optimism was the use of bold colours, high-tech materials and sleek modular forms – something that Denmark’s Verner Panton, an iconic figure that Seidman considers undervalued in the current market, was particularly known for. Because Panton’s pieces are quite affordable at the moment, Seidman notes, they provide a good entry point for anyone looking to bring a piece of 1960s history into their home.
Of course, most people are familiar with the classic Panton Chair, the first to be crafted from a single piece of plastic (it’s currently available in a multitude of groovy shades for around $300 at Design Within Reach and EQ3). Few realize, though, that he dabbled in textiles as well. “His fabrics are very, very chic,” says Seidman, who loves the fact that the Dane would often use fabric to experiment with the colour and shapes he would later apply to his furniture designs. The four-foot fabric panels that he sells on the site are often turned into pillow coverings or framed and hung on a wall. (At $1,500 a pop, they probably should be treated as art.)
For those with smaller budgets, Seidman suggests exploring another category: vintage lighting. “It’s usually lower priced than a lot of mid-century stuff and it’s the easiest way to give character to a home.” Currently, he’s obsessed with the sculptural, futuristic-looking fixtures by Lyfa, particularly the designs from the late 1960s, for their pop-art feel. “But because the seventies are just around the corner, they look a little disco-chic, too.”
For bigger budgets, meanwhile, there’s Joe Colombo, an Italian industrial designer who created everything from doorknobs to wristwatches during his short career (he died at the age of 41). Best known for his innovative approach to seating and storage, Colombo is responsible for such classics as the portable Boby trolley (a modular unit set on wheels and consisting of a stack of rotating drawers and shelves) and his Armchair for Kartell (originally made of wood but now reproduced in plastic).
Surprisingly, Colombo’s chairs are among the few items that Seidman suggests buying (authentic) reproductions of. (Legitimate companies such as Kartell, Flos and Artemide reissue classic designs made to original specifications and with the authorization of designers’ estates, but many mass-market dealers do not.) “I have always admired his chairs, but many of the originals I’ve come across have not aged well,” he says.
Which brings Seidman to another key point – the importance of research. Among his favourite tools: 1stdibs.com, the go-to site for buying and selling antique and vintage wares. “The prices are high, but it shows you how things are valued. You might come across two pairs of Joe Colombo chairs, one for $8,000 and another for $14,000. The descriptions included will mention condition and provenance, allowing buyers to educate themselves not only about designers, but also the value of their work and where to find it.”
On the subject of provenance, Canada and especially Montreal, Seidman says, are particularly rich sources for mod-era finds. “In the fifties, sixties and seventies, Montreal was the wealthiest and most sophisticated city in the country. And Expo 67 was this amazing culmination of architecture and design.” Compared to the United States, a much larger market, prices and availability are also more advantageous here, he adds.
Ultimately, however, the value of a piece comes down to the practical and emotional effect it has on an individual, “whether you want to live with it or you don’t want to live with it.”
“I could go on and on about the history of a chair,” Seidman says. “But if the chair’s uncomfortable, you’re not going to buy it.”