SNAKE LORE 001: Joe Colombo
in depth price breakdown on designer's most notable or accessible pieces
Snake is a design intelligence newsletter…
Today (Bloomsday): the first installment of Lore: focus on one designer (or movement) including important pieces, rough market values, where to get newer repros, second-tier items, knock-offs etc. Upcoming auctions will be at the bottom. But first, housekeeping:
Shirts ship next week.
LORE: Joe Colombo.
Colombo (above right) was a linebacker-shaped industrial designer from Milan who died on his 41st birthday (Leo) and who made what can be fairly considered the best lamps of the last half of the century and maybe the best chairs. Or the best plastic furniture, or the best futuristic furniture, or the best fun furniture, or the best Italian furniture. The academic (or my) argument is Colombo’s work (chairs that were tubes stuck together, bent plastic lamps, tough shapes, never jagged) was a reaction to material and industrial changes going on in the ‘50s and ‘60s. People were living in cities, spaceships out there/being built, plastic, mylar, Lost in Space and so on. Colombo’s furniture reflected all that. But while most of his materials are synthetic—not much wood—they’re not grotesque. He’s not Geiger or Michael Graves. Maybe they’re optimistic… I don’t. know. Mostly the shapes don’t take any thinking to understand. They’re felt immediately. It’s why they strike such a chord and why they go so well with renaissance Italian design or baroque frames, better, I think, than Danish stuff:
So it’s not so much that this is weird plastic furniture than it is perfect timeless continuum furniture, just made in plastic. Colombo had a lot of hits. The Boby trolley, some all-time lamps (the Acrilica, Vadmecum, Spider, list goes on) chairs (Elda, Universal pictured above, the 4801, Birillo stool, Tubo). He also made many theoretical items, like the Total Furnishing Unit, a full room in a box, which I haven’t seen for sale (here’s a MoMA memo about it from 1972). He also designed a car (I think, I keep forgetting), and his brother (Gianni… I think) also designed furniture.
Classic masterpiece, single piece of acrylic plastic, black base (this one’s white) which took JC a few years to perfect because the acrylic kept bending and breaking. Made for Oluce which still sells them now for about $6K. The new ones look good but the old ones look better. This goes for everything but it’s worth mentioning here.
Easy to find, easy to buy. Few old ones made it to America and so most being sold are overseas; anyone here who has one got it forever ago and knows what they have or just doesn’t need the money . Deals don’t exist; vintage ones show up now and then online for $3K (a store called Nova68 has one, not sure their deal) and in that range on 1stDibs and designmkt. They show on LiveAuctioneers a couple times a year for less. A bent prototype sold for 1400. One last Feb. went for 900 and one went yesterday for 1200€ . Once a year or so a lot will pass (no one buys it), the linnked one and this one with a white base jumped out the most to me.
BUY immediately it’s under 1,000, flip a coin if it’s under 2, buy for yourself at 3.
I wrote about the cart in GQ a bit ago… it’s an all ABS wheelie that comes in three sizes (standard shown above; and tall and short) licensed first to Bieffeplast in the 70s and 80s, now B-Line. Bi-Rite seems to be the main distributor for new models right now in America. Or you can order them yourself from a website like this one and choose colors and drawers and height variations. (You can make it all drawers; it looks great.)
Price-wise, these used to be easy to find and easy to buy. The license never really ran out; standard-size vintage models went for no money up until a few years ago; at any point during the week (if you lived in a real city) there’d be two Bobys (in either red, white or black, the most common colors) hovering at $100 on Craigslist. You can occasionally find one on Craigslist now under $200 if you look hard; FB Marketplace also possible. My friend Bennet (not Italian) bought one for $150 last summer (in New York) off Craigslist, so the dream isn’t dead. But prices now are around $300. The secret’s out. Was it a secret? I don’t know. The Boby was an industrially-produced piece of furniture distributed all over the United States for more than a decade. Not a [redacted] demo.
Immediate buying options: Bi-Rite has good colors if you want new, though they’re missing patina or the signature. Sellers on Craigslist or eBay (or IG) with one of these thinks they’re worth $400; if you feel like paying the immediacy tax, go for it. Ones sold on CL/IG seem to always be white, red or black, and standard height… which is fine. But the other colors and sizes are better. Once or twice a year a Boby will show up in auction or online for half that or nothing. So far all those instances since April have been covered in this newsletter. Pamono has some used ones for $1,000 in the good colors. Knockoffs are made by GEDY and other assorted random companies, and you shouldn’t pay very much for them.
BUY if under $199, flip a coin if under 300, hold out if more than that; buy new but only in primary colors, ideally in nonstandard sizes.
Easy to find, easy to buy. Colombo cranked this out in the mid 60s, doing a floor lamp and desk lamp; I am not into the floor lamp. It’s wild to think this is 55 or so years old. Also Oluce. Oluce still makes these but I don’t like the new ones. Old ones just look better for some abstract reason; they hover under a grand on LA when they sell; most are in Europe but worth rolling the dice and biting it on shipping for the shift. There are a few comparable Colombo lamp designs that can be interchanged here. Unless you really need a Spider, look too for the Spring table lamp (hanging ones go for a lot; desks are cheaper), Topolinos or the coupe lamp (nearly affordable). Vadmecum lamps are also amazing and a little harsher, some have sold for nothing; some not. This one runs less than an Acrilica, it’s not as good but just as good, if that makes sense.
BUY if under $600. Coin flip at $1K, buy it for yourself over that.
Harder to find, easy to buy. Colombo worked for a lot of people at once (like me, he was freelance) and did an assortment of lamps for Kartell in the ‘60s too over a few years these aren’t as well made as the Oluces and which were a bit poppier and more downmarket… the yin-yang here is that because these were chintzier fewer have made it to 55, but those that have tend to not go for as much. I’ve seen like, one at a flea market, and they pop up in the online spots I write about way more regular than Acrilicas or any of the ones mentioned above. Depends on your taste which design you might like best. I like the 8.
BUY if under $300 (which won’t happen unless you pound the pavement)
Chairs (Tubo, Elda)
Hard to find, hard to buy. Never seen a Tubo chair (above) in person, only a couple Eldas (very first pic way above) in person if that, both are a higher level of furniture, both go in the five figures now on auction sites in the rare instances they list. Sort of an Acrilica situation: not many stateside. Scrolling LA history, each ran around $3-4K as recently as a couple years ago—the price of an Eames Lounger. Crazy! Feels like the “I know you wore Roshes last summer” meme. But that’s probably a theoretical matter best saved for another newsletter.
Tubos (you can search Tube as well) are produced by Cappellini now; I would even not guess the retail price, the design on the Cap site is far removed from JC’s positive pop muscle sensibilities. Longhi sells new Eldas and the same caveat applies. Both are modular, in a sense: the Tubo dissembles into a tube (using Russian nesting doll technology); the Elda is made up of a bunch of separate cushions. I can’t speak to whether these aesthetics are still there with the new ones.
As for the BUY recommendation here… “good” furniture as a commodity is a new market in North America: maybe 200 people in America under 40 have more than two good things (no shame; it’s a recession), there’s no robust trading regularity (people buy permanently; it’s not like that $20 bill movie), pieces are hard and expensive to ship (always have been) and stores and a few people online now know what (some) things are high visible prices exist. This all exists in parallel with an educated European design market where many people have these for varying prices. All this means is that these chairs don’t really get bought to flip, though they might be down the line. So I can’t recommend spending four figures to flip here. But if you see this at 2016 prices then…
Hard to buy, hard to find. ABS plastic, single component (one piece), the best stacking chair perhaps ever. (What a footnote…) Also known as the 4860, the bonus is many come in Hamas green (not pictured). Produced for Kartell (along with a table) in the ‘60s, these reportedly sold in high numbers. These used to sell for $25, now they’re just not really anywhere. Likely a 1950s baseball card situation where everyone who bought these used them…
BUY if two figures.
Odds and ends:
JC made this in 1968 for Zanotta, with little rivets/somethings on each corner that slide out to hold a drink. A few sold last year on LA, all between 150E and 600 and one passed the other week. But before that never saw these things anywhere. Never seen these at a flea or CL or anything; most of the good ones are in Europe. Most aren’t green. An amazing table, if anyone in New York had one it would be the talk of the town.
Very rare, one of these (the tall one) sold for 24k almost 20 years ago on LA. These are more theoretical than anything. Not sure how to price it.
Man, I have never seen this before. Unbelievable.
Other Colombo items worth looking for: I’m not sure every designer I’ll be profiling in this series will have as much stuff as JC, and these aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but rather a nice market/digging introduction into one set of works a bit deeper. This said, also check out: 4801 chair (not monotone ideally), any of his drinking glasses, Sormani (Roll) chair (armchair or otherwise), Birillo barstools, Multi chair… the stools show up regularly, the drinking glasses seem to always be buyable (but never cheap), the rest is harder to find.
Items you will never ever in your life find, ever: Total Furnishing Unit, his car, his air conditioner.*
Auctions ending this week:
Thanks for reading. My fanzine (published by T-Bill Publishing #2) will provisionally be at the 8ball thing Saturday.
No other eBay or design-related media sources (and no other newsletters) have been consulted in the production of this newsletter.
*One is for sale in Europe.