Service Brown, formerly known as Modern Artifacts Press
Design Finder Modern Artifacts
Story by Jamie Gillian
Photos by Chloe Aftel
February 2011, page 98
Chris Houston, the charmingly curmudgeonly owner of Modern Artifacts in San Francisco, is not your typical retailer. Though his store is packed to the rafters with an eclectic and highly covetable range of vintage furniture, lighting, art, and craft, Houston takes a slow and thoughtful approach to retail and commerce
At his workshop in the East Bay, he works with a fleet of California artisans-plates, refinishers, caners, upholsterers, framers, lacquerers-to impeccably restore the pieces he sells both online and on his shop.
Dedicated to the credo of "less is more," he recently got rid of his cell phone even though he knows that might hurst sales. ("Why are 4,000 conversations day better than one? he asks.) And in his store, he prods shoppers to think before they buy. "I've told customers," Maybe you don't need another chair," Houston says. "Even though I sell things, I do like to remind people that you don't need to own it to appreciate it."
What's best about your job?
I really enjoy fixing things. Also, I complain as much as the next guy about retail and the state of the public mind set, but, you know, I meet really interesting people pretty often. The shop is a magnet for people who are interested in art and good design.
How do you define "good design"?
Good design is fixable. It's not fixable if you don't care about it-it's not fixable if it was trendy and made with poor materials. And good design carries a higher price tag. Someone was paid a living wage to make it, it was made with materials of which there is not an unlimited supply; and it was assembled using more precise tools.
Do you consider restoring furniture a form of recycling?
No! To me, recycling is part of the problem. It's actually downcycling-a degradation of material-and it takes a lot of energy to do it. The worst thing about recycling is that it makes people thing they don't have to change their habits. I don't do recycling. I reuse, and I restore, and I repair.
What differentiates Modern Artifacts from other design stores:
I don't push people to buy things. I'm a terrible salesman. I'll be talking about NAFTA when I'm supposed to be selling an Eames chair. And if there's something in the store that's not perfect, or not quite what it could be, I'll tell you right then and there: You're not going to be able to fix it, because I already tried.
What's your favorite object in your store right now?
I'm a little bored with modern, to be honest with you. So my favorite thing at the moment is this asymmetrical Paolo Deganello Torso chir form 1982. Some people just think it's loud and crazy, but it's actually very settable, very beautiful and its flamboyant without being stupid. And it's from the 80's, which was my period.
What's the best thing about owning a shop?
I love getting excited about something I thought I didn't like. For example, I usually hate Panton, his stuff is loud and garish. But I got his lamps in, and being with them for a little while forced me to realize that, Wow, these are actually pretty good. I like being surprised and forced to flex.
Any advice for would-be customers?
I suspect most people are like me: They have tons of shit they don't need. Get rid of it all! Just keep the things you really like. And then that helps me. Because that's what I sell: the stuff that costs more, that you have to think hard about, and that you're not going to get rid of. And if you do clean house, you might actually make room for something from me. That's the hope.
Go Find it!
1639 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Specialty: Finely retuned vintage pieces.
Top Sellers: Eames loungers and Danish Modern wall units.
Best Deals: Lesser know works of art and USM Haller systems.
Coolest Find: Mountaineer, a 1986 Richard Bosman paintingdepicting a climber falling off a cliff.
109 February 2011
104 February 2011 Dwell
Out with the Old, in with the Older
December 16, 2003
Kick your Ikea to the curb and make room for pieces from the golden era of design.
Author: Lisa Cardenas
Photographer: Mark McNee
Modern Artifacts provides the names and know-how to effortlessly appoint your crib in post-war futurism, which means you'll never have to betray the secret that until recently you thought Bertoia was an Italian hatchback.
One of San Francisco's pre-eminent furniture stores focusing on mid-twentieth century design, the shop specializes in modernist furniture with "that bit of tarnish or fade that makes something look lived in-the antiquated look of old money," say co-owner, Chris Houston.
Upon stepping into this remarkable Market Street boutique, one is captivated by the clean steel lines and white panels of the Haller arrangement that comprises the store's rear wall and shelving units. Configured to order by Houston, the high-end Tinker Toy-like steel rods and knobs are the 1960's creation of German designer Fritz Haller.
A seminal design, Haller systems are vital to psychiatrists' and architects' offices. Houston can configure anything from a nightstand to a wall to a king size bed with your choice of doors or drawers at modular pricing rates.
Inside the spacious glass cases lies a plethora of antique and new objects that are all designed in accordance with the principles of simplicity and function. Alvaar Aalto's uniquely wide and wavy vase ($89) is the prototypical Modern Artifacts display object.
Also perched on the shelves, amid dishes, bottle openers, flat ware, glasses, vases and teapots are miniatures ($65-$250) from the Vitra Design Museum in Berlin. One of the most remarkable miniatures is of the Bertoia chair, which looks like something out of Barbie's retro-modern dream house.
Harry Bertoia created his celebrated diamond chair for form school buddy-turned-furniture-manufacturing tycoon Florence Knoll. Knoll often produced the designs of various talents and paid them royalties from the sales of their objects. Bertoia was a metal sculptor when he created this chair that integrated his art int it's design. His diamond chair is often purchased without a cushion to expose the beautiful grid pattern of the seat.
Furniture enthusiast and Houston's business partner Carole Scott likes to invite customers upstairs to sit in the shops full-size Bertoia chair (approximately $1,100) or a Larsen rocker (also approximately $1,100) created in the body-hugging plywood style of Charles Eames.
Next, continue lounging in a fiberglass Eames rocker chair (approximately $550 to $500). While reclining, gaze off the upstairs balcony past the orange Nelson clock, at the little faux Calder mobiles that dot the ceiling. Many of the store's clients are furniture collectors who Houston says, "are content to have someone walk into their home and not recognize anything."
When a customer. yearns for something fresh, Modern Artifacts will consign or purchase an older piece from them. The furniture is so superbly made that it can survive this circulation and withstand the test of time.
A close look at the dozens of smooth, thin, painted metal lamps in the shop reveals bits of paint that have been loved away over time, but strength and perfection remains in the overall function and structure. The white reversible 1950's Arredoluce torcher lamp, a consignment sale for one of Modern Artifacts' older clients, still flips smoothly from floor to to reading lamp, its reversible function makes it awesome; the fading paint reveals it's special and historic.
Houston remarks, "Gardens don't look good when you first plant them… a lot of materials don't look good until they look a bit lived-in"-just as furniture with established character gives off an aura of value and a valued past.
Modern Artifacts / 1639 Market St. / 415.255.9000