SOFA’s Back in Town

Lately, contemporary decorative arts have looked decidedly out of step with the high-flying fine-art market. A Giacometti may have soared to $103.4 million in February at auction, but types of craft, from ceramics to furniture to metalwork to glass, have lagged behind the art market’s nascent recovery. The field’s been hit by a triple whammy, said dealer Michael Heller, speaking from his meatpacking district gallery stacked with gorgeous, vividly colored sculptures of blown and cast glass. “The stock market tanked, real estate across the board dropped in value, and then even if you weren’t hit by Madoff, that soured the mood,” he said.

But the field has something of a fresh start with the opening April 15 of the SOFA fair (it stands for Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. The event is one of the few in the art world to put the niche category front and center. Fifty-eight dealers will display wares on opening night at a $100 benefit for the Museum of Arts and Design. The fair then runs through Monday evening at a $15 ticket price.

Here, we look at a trio of the fair’s longtime exhibitors to see if the field is ripe for reappraisal.

Moderne Gallery

The recession has heavily impacted American studio furniture, said dealer Bob Aibel. “Last year was really lackluster, and my gross sales fell almost 50 percent for work by George Nakashima and other Modernists.” Now, he said, he’s starting to feel a return to almost 2008 sales levels.

In the meantime, there’s a silver lining for buyers: lower prices. Take the Nakashima 1980 music stand in ebonized oak with brass inlay he’s bringing to the fair. It’s tagged at $60,000. “In the bubble, I sold one for $85,000,” said Mr. Aibel.

The Philadelphia dealer is showcasing his big guns at SOFA: works by a who’s who of American studio furniture. He’s a well-known expert in the movement, which had its genesis, according to some accounts, in Wharton Esherick’s 1940 show at the New York World’s Fair, “America at Home.” Esherick’s hand-carved bespoke furniture inspired a generation of craftsman. Mr. Abel will be bringing some Esherick pieces to the fair, along with works by Wendell Castle, another star of the field. Other works Mr. Aibel is bringing include Sam Maloof’s 1967 settee for $60,000, and a 1995 rocking chair for $50,000, both in walnut. Mr. Maloof is akin to design-world royalty as the only cabinetmaker ever to garner a MacArthur “genius” grant; U.S. presidents have owned his rocking chairs.

“They all represent the best of the Studio Furniture movement-displaying a reverence for wood allied with the organic nature of design,” said Mr. Aibel. He says his wares fit well in today’s interior design vogue for organic forms and Asian-style notes of tranquility.

Joan Mirviss Ltd.

One trend is working in dealer Joan Mirviss’ favor: Museums around the world are beefing up their collections of Japanese ceramics. That demand is shoring up prices in her specialty.

Ten years ago, Ms. Mirviss counted just 10 museums acquiring in the field. “Now, there are over 40 museums here, with ones in Europe and Australia jumping on examples, too,” she said. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is adding to its collection. And the Chazzan Museum of Art, in Madison, Wisc., is completing a new building with an entire gallery specifically dedicated to contemporary Japanese ceramics. Both have bought from her recently, she said. “I haven’t seen any dip [in sales] at all,” said the Upper East Side dealer. She attributed her strong sales to what she dubs accessible price points.

At SOFA, Ms. Mirviss is featuring a solo exhibition of the works of Koike Shoko. Prices begin at $2,000 and run to a modest $13,000. Her stoneware vessels are quite distinctive: drenched in Oribe white glazes with craggy shell and petals forms. Her work is in the collection of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.

Heller Gallery

What glass dealers are fretting about is a graying of their collecting base, which is slowing the pace of acquisitions. Not all of his artists are affected, though, said gallery owner Michael Heller. “Clients wanting to replicate their own parents’ holdings of vessels by Lino Tagliapietra [the Venetian glass blowing maestro who taught Dale Chihuly] tend to be the exception,” he said. “We now have new clients for Lino.” In fact, Heller has been racking up residential and commercial sales. The artist’s flock of birdlike forms with wings spanning four feet across are on display at Silver Towers on West 42nd Street; other works can be spotted at 7 World Trade Center. Tagliapietra commissions can run up to $250,000, but vessels at the fair begin at $39,000.

One recent sale Mr. Heller’s particularly proud of: The Soho Mondrian hotel has commissioned a young artist he represents, Beth Lipman, to create a banquet table in glass based on a 17th-century Dutch still life. It, and the hotel, will be unveiled this fall.

SOFA’s Back in Town