Unlike in the past, when we only bought used furniture if it looked like new, today we go for patina.
“A patinated piece of furniture made by hand contains the lifeblood and memories of a time that we have lost”, says furniture dealer Mark J. Roberts.
“The more and the better patina that furniture has, the higher the price", says Lawrence Woods, another dealer.
"When I go into a home to look at used furniture, I am constantly preoccupied with the patina!”
Lawrence Woods is the owner of the company Classic in central London, where European furniture classics are traded. His shop is packed with leather sofas by Borge Mogensen, old PH lamps, and classic chairs with wicker seats. As far as the eye can see, there is deep golden leather and dark wood. Furniture that is marked by the passage of time is lovingly placed in a position to show how it can live on in a new home when customers take these items home.
"It is a piece of furniture from the 1950s, where the wood has got just the right tinge, so we are talking about patina," says Lawrence.
"A piece of furniture can be from an unknown designer, but because it has beautiful patina – it might have a fine leather seat, for example – the price can be quite high."
In short, furniture with patina is in very high demand. Where people previously only bought used furniture classics because they were cheaper than the new items – today people go after classics that are marked by age.
Lawrence explains how both leather and wood develop deeper, richer tones over time. Furniture that has been well looked after for many years takes on a special glow. And that means that the price may well rise with the age of a piece.
"A product from the 1950s, for instance, which has a really nice patina and where the leather has become a golden cognac colour after being cared for throughout its life with soft soap and leather grease, clearly commands a high price. A piece of furniture may well be a collector's item, like a vintage car that has been taken care of very well. If some parts have been replaced, the item won’t bring in the same price as if it were completely original."
Patina fetches a high price
Mark J. Roberts has for many years operated his European Furniture Designs store, which primarily sells European furniture classics to an international market. He also sees how the value of patinated items has increased from when he opened his shop in the early 1990s.
"When I started in this business, the used furniture had to be as neat as the brand new. People only bought used because it was half the price."
Over time, that has changed, says Mark. German furniture collectors, among others, have begun to demand Arne Jacobsen Ant chairs with three legs in original teak from the 1950s.
"We were unable to sell some of these items at first because people wanted chairs that looked brand new. But from the mid-1990s, that began to change."
Mark’s discerning customers began to want furniture that was as original as possible – and they still want this. The international collectors he sells to look especially for furniture produced by certain designers or manufacturers, and where neither the leather nor wood have been replaced.
"It means that prices are have increased dramatically. If I find a Chieftain Chair by Finn Juhl with the original leather, I might pay £70,000 for it. If the original leather has been replaced, it will only be worth around £20,000", says Mark.
The same is true for other classics that have become collectibles. The more original they are, and the better they are patinated, the higher the price.
"The red Kaare Klint chair with Niger leather from the 1930s can cost £3500 or more. But if it has been reupholstered, the price will probably only be £1800."
It's about history
Patina has become so popular because customers want something that stands out in the décor, explains Lawrence Woods from Classic.
"I think it’s because there is a story to it. When I walk into a furniture store that sells new items, I find it all resoundingly dull. It’s all too sleek and perfect. When you choose to buy furniture with patina, you enter another realm!”
According to Lawrence, many people now like to surround themselves with things that have history. We appreciate crafted items that have come from the right hands, and we enjoy furniture that has been nurtured and cared for because it matures and becomes even more beautiful.
"We can see how a patinated piece of furniture has lived a good life. As with ourselves: it may well be that we have reached 50 or 60 years, but if we have taken care of ourselves, we become distinguished and show character."
Mark from European Furniture agrees:
"When you buy a piece of beautifully patinated furniture, you invest in a piece of history. You get a tangible memory from the time when European furniture design peaked. That was when carpenters were very careful to do the best work using the best materials, and upholsterers were the same. It was a time when quality came first, and the furniture designers were in close contact with the craftsmen to ensure this quality."
Patinated design classics represent a part of European design history that we should appreciate, adds Mark.
"If a chair has the completely original leather, and is in good condition, the chair is so much more interesting and valuable than one that has been reupholstered. It means that you have a piece of history in your home.
"Everything is produced very quickly today, and most furniture is machine made. A patinated item that is handmade represents the spirit and memories of a time that we have lost."
Differences in patina
Both Mark and Lawrence stress that patina is not just about stains and wear.
"Stains are not patina in my view", says Mark. We are not talking about vandalism. A piece of furniture that has been stored in a cellar and generally neglected is marked by time and location, but this will rarely produce beautiful patina. A piece of furniture that has been used and cared for though, resonates with history and passion."
Lawrence emphasises that patina is all about a long process over time.
"When I look at the two Bruno Mathsson chairs in the window, I see they have the wonderful surface we like. They are becoming more cognac coloured, but the leather still has something pink about it that will change with more time. They are still in a process."
According to Lawrence, some types of leather take patina better than others, especially natural leather that is untreated. It is almost the colour of pigskin to begin with, but as the years pass, and if it gets the right care, it obtains the cognac colour that is so sought after, he says.
"Leather, wood and fabric react to sunlight. You can see the Nanna Ditzel desktop in rosewood, which has turned into a very bright rosewood with the effect of the sun.
"Leather that is not bleached is natural leather, and that gets darker over time.
“Today you can get types of leather that look like they already have patina, adds Lawrence. “But if you look carefully, you can see that there is a difference.
"The Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, which is upholstered in natural leather, takes on a dark oily colour. If you put a new egg chair next to an old patinated one like that, anyone could tell the difference."
Question: Mark, do you also treat some of your furniture to make it look more patinated and more attractive?
"With older furniture we are often looking at how it has been treated. It's all about retaining the good patina that is already there, and highlighting the fine things and the good leather. But of course we do treat the furniture and give it what it needs, including care and passion!"
Question: Does that mean you treat it with soap flakes and leather grease, Mark?
"Yes, but one must remember to be extra careful when using soap flakes on an old piece of porous leather. Soap and water needs to be used very carefully, otherwise the leather can dry up and become like cardboard."
Achieving patina that is unique
The genuine patina that we are so excited to get in older furniture today cannot be seen in the newly manufactured furniture on sale, says Mark.
"Today, tanning is done in a completely different way than before. This means that the leather that is treated today will not darken in the same fashion as older leather did."
Mark adds that there was a tannery in his hometown for many years that supplied hides for all the major furniture manufacturers from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.
"They had to close because they caused a lot of pollution, but it was tanners such as those who delivered the skins we now find on older furniture.”
One can find Niger leather from African goats on old Kaare Klint furniture, for example, and according to Mark, it is almost impossible for it to wear out.
"It is difficult to obtain Niger leather today because of the local conflicts in Africa. That means you have to buy newer skins, which are also high quality. But in the long term, it unfortunately does not give the patina of which we are all so fond."