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A Q&A with Nicholas Barber, Eames hunter extraordinaire

November 15, 2018 9:00 am

Nicholas Barber is the kind of guy you’d trust with your great grandma’s good china on a rollercoaster.

He supplies the brains — and more importantly, taste — behind Patina NYC, a local design dealer that specializes in rare and vintage pieces designed by Ray and Charles Eames.

You want a real-deal piece of modernist history in your living room? Barber is your guy.

We recently chatted with him about hunting down the most prized chairs on earth … and how you can get your hands on one.

Ed. note: While Barber’s site features his collection of Eames chairs and loungers, check out his shop on 1stDibs for his full collection of mid-century home goods, furniture and artifacts.

InsideHook: Who are you?
Nicholas Barber: I started collecting modern furniture a few years ago. After leaving a job and considering what to do next I stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix called Eames: Architect and Painter, which profiled husband-and-wife modern design luminaries Charles and Ray Eames. I had no design background but was captivated by their process. They were prolific, frenetic and passionate about having fun. I was an avid Mad Men fan and noticed a lot of Eames furniture in the shows, and I also walked my dog Franklin at night past a modern design store on Crosby Street called Artifacts 20th Century, gazing into the glowing windows at the furniture that now fills my own apartment.

IH: We know it’s Eames. But … why Eames?
NB: I became enthralled with Eames designs for a few reasons. When I got started I had scant resources to fund my interest and passion for collecting, but many of their designs are accessible. I scoured eBay and Craigslist, at first looking for damaged or incomplete pieces that I would transform. I also had familiarity with the fiberglass shell chairs, which I remember sitting on in driver’s ed. Most people who ask me what I do may not immediately recognize the name Eames, though just about everyone in this country has sat in an Eames design, whether at work, home, in school or a waiting room, or at the airport. I also appreciated that Charles and Ray Eames never stopped evolving and iterating. They frequently updated the designs with new parts that improved durability, comfort and functionality.

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IH: How do you find these unicorns?
NB: When I was getting started, I bought every book and read every blog and online forum about the furniture that I could track down. I didn’t even know how to pronounce Eames [Ed. note: It’s eemz] at first, but now I can look at two seemingly identical pieces and identify their age within a handful of years based on screws, labels, finishes and the like (in large part thanks to Eames historian Daniel Ostroff at the Eames Office, editor of An Eames Anthology). For example, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman have been in continuous production since 1956. The fixed angle of the lounge has not changed. The dimensions and contours remain the same. But if one chair has three screws affixing the armrest to the chair, it tells you that it is an early production. If the cushions are down, or down and foam, or all foam, it gives more hints about the age, and so on.

IH: You have a most coveted piece?
NB: My job is a treasure hunt. If I find something I want then I will get it, no matter where it is. The problem is that on some level, I would keep nearly everything I buy if I could. Sometimes it is hard to let go of certain pieces. But there are some pieces that come in the door and never leave. My white whale is actually a blue whale: I had always wanted an early production rosewood Eames lounge and ottoman in original blue leather. Since this was a custom order in the late 1950s, there just aren’t more than a few original sets out there. I found the only one I have ever seen. I bought it. I will never sell it. When you deal in antique furniture there are just some things you won’t come across  again.

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IH: Do you enjoy it?
NB: I enjoy being able to breathe life into older pieces, whether it involves restoration or just connecting them with new owners. I studied history in college and am definitely drawn to the history and evolution of the pieces I sell. Sometimes the school chairs will have 50-year-old gum stuck underneath them (I remove this). It’s crazy to think that whatever kid stuck it there in middle school could be a grandparent by now. I often buy 60-year-old pieces from the original owners or their children. They sometimes show me childhood photos sitting in the same chair, or tell me about their parents’ lives and that they grew up with the chair I just loaded into the truck. These pieces have already been lived in through multiple generations, and I love being the one to pass them on to their next life.

IH: What are the biggest hurdles to your success?
NB: Traditionally there were high barriers to entry into the high-end art and design market. I was able to promote my business quickly through creative photos on Instagram. Most galleries photograph their inventory in front of white backdrops and photoshop the pictures. I differentiated mine by putting a chair in the middle of the street in Soho, or a beach in Cape Cod, or a lava field in Iceland. Photographing the pieces out in the wild is categorically my favorite part of the job. It is a creative outlet and I always meet interesting people while I’m out and about. By using these methods, I was able to reach buyers all over the planet. Between Instagram and online marketplaces, the world is the market. I haven’t shipped an Eames chair to Antarctica yet, but it is on my to-do list.

IH: How do I make something beautiful like this last forever?
NB: If you take care of your furniture, it is easy to make it last long enough to pass onto your children. These designs were all manufactured in the USA and built to last. Sometimes hardware needs to be replaced, leather conditioned, wood oiled, etc. But this stuff is meant to be used and enjoyed. It is beautiful and functional. It is art you can sit in.

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