Béton Brut’s Sophie Pearce & Pamono’s Órlaith Moore rhapsodize midcentury modernism

Overheard at the Gallery

By Órlaith Moore

What happens when two enthusiastic design lovers meet in a space teeming with rare specimens of 20th-century furniture and lighting? Design rhapsody, of course. On a recent spring morning, Pamono’s Órlaith Moore visited Sophie Pearce at her fabulous, East London vintage haven, Béton Brut. Read on for highlights from their conversation—in praise of midcentury modernism.


Órlaith Moore: But what do you love most about postwar design?

Sophie Pearce: Hmm… I’d say that postwar design is so enduring because modernism is all about “stripping back”—that is, stripping design back to its purest form and function. The beauty is in the simplicity. It's a visual expression of youthfulness.

That's why those designs have lasted; it's almost like...

ÓM: Like they’re timeless?

SP: Yeah, it's like a circle, a square, a triangle; you can't get any simpler shape than that, can you? Or like primary colors, like red, blue, and yellow. It’s quite a pure and pleasing expression of form.

ÓM: Is there anything that you don’t like about postwar design? Is there a certain design that you wouldn’t carry in your gallery, or something you would say is outside your remit?

SP: Generally, I specialize in pieces designed by architects; that is, most of the pieces I sell have been architect-designed. Not exclusively, but many of them. So often they’re quite… I guess it's the obvious word, but they are “architectural” in form. They are sculptural, and it’s all about the line and the shape. Also, I prefer to stock pieces that are no longer in production or are less likely to have been reissued. I have to like everything, personally, myself!

As a dealer who sees midcentury design all the time, I prefer things that I’ve seen less of. I’m slightly over this kind of sea of Danish teak  that often characterizes—or even caricatures—the  period. At the moment, I am more interested in Dutch modernism, which is…

ÓM: A little more industrial?

SP: Yeah, it’s a little more robust and even more stripped back. I’m also increasingly into Italian modern and postmodern. I see those two areas as the next postwar furniture trends.

ÓM: I was about to ask. Do you think midcentury will ever die? What’s next or what will replace it?

SP: That’s the thing… it's so reassuring that so many sub-genres of 20th-century design exist. The UK market is only now becoming aware of Dutch modernism. Likewise with the late-Italian modernism and early postmodernism. With the recent auction of David Bowie’s "Memphis Collection," I would say that postmodern has reached a new level of public awareness and is no longer just in the collector’s little bubble. You can go in so many directions with it.

ÓM:  What are some specific pieces that you really love; that best represent your taste?

SP: A couple of designers are inspiring me a lot at the moment. One is Italian-Swiss architect Mario Botta, who’s famous for these incredible churches. But he also designed these unbelievable metal lights and perforated metal chairs—all are expressions of his buildings. He is very fascinating to me at the moment! 

I’m also very excited by Italian radical architectural collective Superstudio. Their Quaderna Table—basically a white laminate table with a black grid pattern—looks so simple, but actually has a very intricate honeycomb construction. If it were solid board or wood, you wouldn’t be able to even lift them. So what looks very angular and straight on the outside is actually really organic—like a beehive—on the inside. The vintage ones can be very heard to come by, so when I see one, I jump on it! 

In terms of British design—not strictly an architect but among our biggest talents—I particularly admire Robin Day. He has gained a lot of recognition for his lifetime achievements in the last few years, like the retrospective at the V&A back in 2015. His classic Polypropylene Chair was produced in the millions and had a huge impact on British design culture. He invented a new kind of glue to bind the plywood  so it could be bent in two directions while maintaining its strength. I love those little tidbits of history.

ÓM: Absolutely, I think the Polyprop is a chair that everyone knows—even if they don’t know they know it.

SP: Exactly! Day has had an influence on our lives, including those who don’t know him. So I collect his work personally. 

ÓM: What designs do you rely on everyday? Are there pieces that simplify your life or make it easier? Does Robin Day fall into that category?

SP: Yes, he does. There’s a famous motto from Danish designer Hans Wegner (and a book that sums up his work): “Just one good chair.” It was Wegner’s lifetime ambition to design one really good chair—even though he had about 600 chair designs to his name. And with Day as well, he was obsessed by the idea of creating the ultimate chair. He was particularly pleased with his Reclining Chair, and I have one at home. It has a light steel-rod frame, so it looks like the chair is floating. But then the upholstered seating is very comfortable and ergonomic and sits at the perfect angle. And the headrest perfectly fits your neck, complemented by the wide, almost paddle-like wooden armrests that can be used as a side table. I use it everyday, and it's the ultimate expression of comfort in my mind.

ÓM: Do you have any advice for new collectors or design enthusiasts who are just starting to acquire vintage design?

SP: I mean the obvious thing is to pick what you like–to trust your eye—and chances are it will have some longevity. On a more collectible basis, look for things that you rarely see. Something well designed or beautifully constructed, for instance.

I currently have a piece by Ruud Jan Kokke  called the Latjes Stoel, and it's made from many, many tiny oak staves—all intricately dovetailed onto the seat’s frame. It seems rather fragile, when you imagine sitting on a bunch of spindles that are less than 1cm wide. But, because it’s so well design, so that weight is evenly spread across the parts, it’s actually really strong. Although not many people have heard of Jan Kokke yet, the point is that the piece is beautiful and interesting and rare—too intricate to mass-produce and only made to order for private clients. All those things make it something quite special and collectible.

ÓM: Well, thank you for introducing me to it! It's lovely.

SP: A pleasure.

  • Photos by

    • Marco Lehmbeck

      Marco Lehmbeck

      Born and raised between forests and lakes near Berlin, Marco studied creative writing in Hildesheim and photography in Berlin. He’s also part of the organizational team behind Immergut indie music festival. He loves backpacking, Club-Mate, and avocados, and he always wears a hat.
  • Text by

    • Órlaith Moore

      Órlaith Moore

      Originally from Ireland, Órlaith studied French and history, and inevitably fell in love with architecture and design while working as a tour guide on the Eiffel Tower. Since moving to Berlin, she’s committed to creating a beautiful, encyclopedic guide of vintage designers for Pamono, mastering the complexities of German grammar, and discovering every Biergarten in the city.