By Renee Corbino
My husband and I had dinner with my in-laws the other night, and as soon as we arrived my mother in-law shared this article with me, about a pair of chairs that she had submitted to The Washington Post for advice on restoring them. She referred to them as olive chairs, and I as soon as I saw them I realized that I had seen a similar chair not that long ago, and at the time I had been unable to find any information on the maker or designer. I had also seen a hoop chair in the opening scene of Mad Men, and even then couldn’t figure out who the maker was. And there it was, the maker, staring at me in black and white from a column in the Washington Post. What luck! But I quickly realized that the history of these chairs was more complicated than meets the eye.
My mother in law is very curious by nature and also seeks to learn as much as she can about any given subject, and these chairs were no exception. As soon as she finished jumping up and down that her query about the chairs had been answered, she set out on a quest to find out more information on the maker of the chairs, and what she found were three different mid-century designers, all attributed to the same style of chair! So, here I go to try to sort it all out.
Jeanne Huber, the writer of the column, said that these chairs appeared to be similar to designs by a Canadian designer, John Hauser, from 1955. As she recommended, I did a google image search using the terms “Hauser hoop chair” and I got several results. One site said that these chairs were designed by John Hauser for Ironworks (Canada) another said it was John Hauser for Kitchner. According to the Ironworks website, John Hauser, a blacksmith, immigrated to Canada opened John Hauser Ironworks in 1949. According to this press release, they partnered with over 200 manufacturers across the US and Canada, which accounts for the various differences in the company names. While they are still in business today, the iconic hoop chair does not seem to make an appearance in their inventory.
What is interesting for me is that on the auction market, there is virtually no mention of John Hauser; curious because he seems to be the most well known designer of their chairs and extremely prolific. A search for John Hauser on any of the most popular sites, LiveAuctioneers, ArtFact, Christies, and Sotheby’s does not result in any hits, so it appears that associating items with his name is not a convention widely practiced.
Next, my mother-in-law found this blog post from Mr. Modtomic describing these chairs as outdoor furniture, designed by Tony Paul for Woodlin Hall. In terms of auction listings, the attribution or association with Tony Paul been the most promising. I found two LiveAuctioneers comparables for Tony Paul Hoop chairs. The first a pair selling for $200 at Rago Art and Auction Center on January 14, 2012, described as “lounge chairs, in the manner of Tony Paul” with cow skin seats and enameled iron frames. In 2009, another pair was sold at Wright auction in 2009 for $600, also described as “in the manner of Tony Paul.” Finally, Tony Paul shows up at Christie’s in London in 2007, with five stools definitely by him, selling for $4,094. These stools were designed for a company called Robert Barker Inc. With a lack of auction comparables for Tony Paul items, it appears that items attributed directly to him are exceptionally rare and when authentic pieces come to market, they typically sell quite well. His name is most associated with these items on the auction market, even though there are few comparables.
Finally, using Google books my mother-in-law found the patent for the hoop chair, filed on July 17th, 1952 by Joseph Carl Cicchelli. While it seems that both Hauser and Paul were most closely associated with these chairs, they were not actually the owner of the design. In 1952, Joseph Carl Cicchelli, patented the hoop chair for a period of seven years, so while he may not have been the originator of the idea, according to the patent office, he certainly benefited from the patent for at least seven years.
As an auction professional, the question becomes how to describe these chairs in an auction listing or an appraisal. It’s a difficult question. The lack of auction comparables describing these chairs as John Hauser leads me to think that as a general practice, Hauser’s name is not associated with these chairs, and has no bearing on the hammer price of the items. Tony Paul’s name is used more frequently, and the use of “in the style of” is definitely an industry standard, whether or not the chairs are tagged or not. Unfortunately, the legal originator of the Hoop Chair, Joseph Carl Cicchelli, has gone by the wayside, and his name isn’t associated at all with the hoop chairs. “Hoop chair” seems to be the dominate description, but that leaves the designers without recognition.
In general, it seems that very few of these chairs come to auction, yet they are an icon of mid-century furniture, and the design was quite pervasive across several designers. Billed as outdoor furniture, most of them probably didn’t last particularly long, and were thrown or given away, accounting for how few of them are found on the auction market. Even with their relative rareness, they typically only bring between $150-300, with some selling for more or less, likely depending on condition and attribution.
From an auction or industry professional standpoint, these chairs could be described as “Hoop Chair” in the Manner of Tony Paul following what seems to be the accepted attribution when designers are mentioned. But, describing simply as hoop chair is also an accurate term and how most of these chairs are listed. Because these chairs were so popular, their original design cannot be definitively attributed to any one of these three designers, but hopefully with the current popularity of mid-century modern furniture, more of these chairs will begin to appear on the market and give the makers the recognition they deserve. The inclusion of a hoop chair in Mad Men solidifies their importance in the cannon of mid-century furniture, and if you see one at auction or an estate sale, snap it up at a great price before their popularity prices the average bidder out of the market.