Thoroughly Modern Milieu

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I knew when I married Peter that my life would be furniture--all furniture," said Shannon Loughrey. She was sitting in the makeshift office of a spacious building on Beverly Boulevard crammed with sculptural tables, chairs and bookcases.

It's the new home of the Los Angeles Modern Auction, where Peter and Shannon Loughrey spend most of their time, scouting out modern furniture on consignment, selling it at auction and starting the cycle again.

The nonstop pace is increasingly paying off for the energetic couple. They made history in May when a rare 1940s molded plywood chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen was purchased at their auction by an anonymous buyer for $129,000, a record for mid-century modern design.

And in September their auction house made GQ magazine's Hip List as the "Coolest place to buy a vintage Eames chair." Since 1996, the auction has almost doubled its sales every year, Peter said.

"We started from $125,000, and in 1998 it was almost a million dollars," he said. "I'm extremely lucky. I got into this business in the late 1980s, when it was a hodgepodge."

That was the period when modern furniture and accessories were being sold at garage sales, and it wasn't uncommon to pick up an Eames chair at a swap meet. Peter's first involvement, after moving to Los Angeles, was in collecting and selling chrome toasters, bakelite utensils and "lighthearted kitsch." Then he got serious.

"I decided to focus on good design," he said.

His timing couldn't have been better.

"The market for modern design has been explosive in the '90s, both in America and Europe," said Bruce Wolmer, editor of New York's Art & Auction magazine. "It's the reinvention of cool--a hip style that has become high style. And Peter has been extremely active in cultivating a smart, stylish group of collectors."

Furniture as Decorative Arts

After doing some retail selling, he had started a small auction company in 1992 to focus on selling 20th century furniture as decorative arts, an unusual specialty at the time. He tapped into a new generation of collectors who were developing a taste for the streamlined fiberglass, molded plywood and polished aluminum furniture that characterizes mid-20th century design.

Since their marriage in 1995, Peter, 31, and Shannon, 29, have developed a full-time partnership.

"He's the artist, and I'm the planner," said Shannon, whose double major in college was accounting, and business and finance. "I had no idea how complex this field could be," she said.

With Oct. 24 looming as the next date for an L.A. Modern Auction, the Loughreys (pronounced "Lockrey") and their small staff are busy with final touches. Prospective customers have received a catalog of the items to be sold, which also are featured on the company Web site.

"The actual sale is always exciting," Peter said. "Typically we'll have 350 people--it will be crowded, rowdy and lots of fun, even if you're not bidding."

They'll be taking bids from the audience, plus from international clients bidding by phone on open lines.

"We will offer 430 lots [a 'lot' can be as small as a vase or as large as a table and chairs], which is pushing the limits of attention span, he said.

The upcoming auction will also be the first major event in their new home. After leasing gallery space for each auction, they've moved to a permanent home, a former prop company building. By tearing down interior walls, installing vintage lighting and painting the interior black and white, "we have a nice '50s look now," Peter said.

They also have room now to store furniture before each auction. Like such major auction houses as Christie's and Sotheby's, the Loughreys don't buy anything, but take articles on consignment after Peter appraises them.

"In the beginning, I was having to knock on doors, and it took me a while to have sales on a regular basis," he said, "but my last few sales have set world-record prices for these articles."

"It's a lot of growth for a small company," said Shannon, who is accountant, receptionist, marketer and computer expert. "I've got my finger on everything, but I wish I could clone myself four times."

For Peter Loughrey, who grew up going to 18th century furniture auctions with his collector parents, the 20th century is a comfortable niche.

"I started paying attention to furniture by architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames," he said. "I was particularly interested in authentic prototypes or at least the early pieces. They are closest to the artist's design--it's like the first edition of a book. I specialize in that distinction."

And Shannon, who notes that "I'd certainly never heard of Charles Eames until I married Peter," now could spot an Eames chair in any lineup. After three years in the business, she knows the work of Charles and Ray Eames, along with Richard Neutra, Paul Laszlo, K.E.M. Weber, George Nelson, R.M. Schindler, Alvar Alto, Frank Gehry and other designers, many based in Los Angeles, whose work dominated the 20th century.

"Peter is a great teacher," she said.

From the Same Town, in the Same Building

Although Peter and Shannon grew up in the same picturesque beachfront town of Salisbury, Md., and even ice-skated on the same winter lake, they didn't really get acquainted until 1994 when they both ended up at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Peter had returned from Los Angeles to undergo treatment for lymphoma at the National Institutes of Health, and Shannon was working for the NIH director.

"I was one of 10 people responsible for a $13-billion budget," she recalled. "It was an exciting place to be--they're on the forefront of research, and every time there was a new advance, a network TV crew would descend in front of our office."

Somebody from her hometown suggested she look up Peter, and she discovered they were in the same building. Since the mammoth NIH complex covers 300 acres, "it was complete destiny," she said. Even in the hospital, Peter had furniture on his mind. His room was dominated by a huge print of the famous Vitra Design Museum poster depicting hundreds of chairs spanning the 20th century.

"He knew every one," recalled Shannon, "and his eyes lighted up whenever he talked about them."

When his treatment was completed, Peter went to London to enroll in Sotheby's Works of Art Course, a master's-level art history program.

By then they were dating seriously.

"Peter is Irish and asked me to spend Christmas with his extended family in Dublin," Shannon said. "I flew over to London, and he proposed to me right at Heathrow Airport. It was beautiful--I was in tears!"

When they returned to Los Angeles, they hit the ground running with the auction business.

"No one deserves success more--he has stuck to it," said Los Angeles art dealer Ronald Winokur, a longtime modernist collector. "I've known Peter since he was 20," said Winokur, who has dubbed him "the archeologist," because of his scholarly approach as an appraiser.

"The way he checks such details on a piece of furniture as the original screws that were used, and knowing the manufacturing process, and how it changed--that's his expertise. He just loves the stuff and understands it both aesthetically and from a technical standpoint," Winokur said. "That's why he has been so successful. Now he is selling to an international audience."

Peter's expertise as an appraiser is entirely self-taught, through years of studying every piece of furniture that comes into his hands, down to the tiniest seam.

"I have handled hundreds of examples of each design by Eames and documented a lot of the differences," he said. Like a detective, he can track the tiniest clue, and if a collector calls and says, "I've got an Eames DCW from 1946 with a black frame and blond seat and back," he can place it coherently in production history and value.

"My specialty is American postwar design, but I also do Italian from the 1930s to the present," Peter explained.

Collectibles That Are Also Functional

Whatever the period, for many clients, who grew up tiptoeing around the antiques their parents collected, the simplicity and sturdiness of modernism is refreshing, Peter said.

"Most clients use these pieces, and I encourage them to. I know people who paid $3,000 for chairs 15 years ago and are still sitting in them to eat breakfast."

Collectors Michael and Gabrielle Boyd of Oakland have a 20th century collection so outstanding that last year it merited a show, "Sitting on the Edge," at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Yet, said Michael, who composes music for films and commercials, they live with it.

"It's incredibly comfortable and very beautiful," he said. "We have boys 9 and 5, and they've grown up with the stuff. It's aesthetically pleasing and well designed and contributes a sort of intangible to our way of life." Although they've been collecting much longer than Peter, they've enjoyed watching his evolution, Boyd added.

"They're trying to do something serious, and if you're not a Sotheby's with a 200-year history, that's not easy. It's hard to be extremely enthusiastic and extremely careful about the attribution [authentication], but Peter does both."

The Loughreys have their own collection of modern furniture, but much of it rotates through their Laurel Canyon apartment regularly because of the auctions.

Shannon said, "We're beginning to hold on to a few things," including a 1950s collection of Bjorn Windblat porcelain she treasures.

Their personal collection also includes 12 pieces of furniture Eames and Saarinen originally designed for the Museum of Modern Art, an extraordinary ensemble.

"We go home and use these things," Peter said. "As long as you don't set a wet drink on it, they are very durable."

Their new working quarters will allow them to spread their wings. Now that they have a home, they're planning monthly sales for beginning collectors and two yearly "important" sales for major collectors. And they expect to be doing more auctions on the Internet.

"Peter says he couldn't do this business without me, and I certainly wouldn't be doing it without him," she reflected. "But I've had so much fun, I have no complaints at all."

* L.A. Modern Auction, Oct. 24 at 2 p.m., 8057 Beverly Blvd. Information, http://www.lamodern.com.

* Connie Koenenn can be reached at connie.koenenn@latimes.com.

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