On Location

In a Marathon Auction, the Four Seasons Proves Good Design is Perennial

Four Seasons Bar

Last month, Manhattan’s legendary Four Seasons restaurant — whose bar is shown above (photo by Jennifer Calais Smith) and whose Pool Room is at top — served the final meals in its mid-century modern Philip Johnson–designed digs on the lower floors of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s Seagram Building. After it closed, Chicago’s Wright auction house sold 650 lots worth of its furnishings, fittings and fixtures. Photos courtesy of Wright, unless otherwise noted

The beloved Four Seasons restaurant in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterly Seagram Building, a New York institution since the dawn of the Mad Men era, served its last power lunch on July 16. Ten days later, its passing was commemorated by one of the most atmospheric — and most surprising — auctions ever, a 15-hour marathon presided over by Richard Wright, of Chicago’s Wright auction house.

The 650 lots on offer fetched a combined $4.1 million, four times the presale estimate. Everything sold: the furnishings and tableware chosen in 1959 by architect Philip Johnson — by such mid-century modern design luminaries as Hans Wegner and Eero Saarinen, as well as by Mies and Johnson themselves — plus the pieces of museum-quality art that the restaurant’s longtime owners, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, were fond of rotating in and out of its soaring spaces.

Held in the very rooms where, for 57 years, the mandarins of media, finance and fashion made deals over crab quenelles and chocolate velvet cake, the auction drew hordes of dealers, big-name designers and former patrons eager for mementos. “There were some clear trophy pieces, but the sale’s success was really driven by emotion,” Wright says. “I was blown away by the response.”

Credit Phyllis Lambert, the architect daughter of Seagram distillery owner Samuel Bronfman, for convincing her father to hire modern architects of such global stature in the late 1950s. Bronfman commissioned Mies to build the company’s International Style headquarters, and the latter brought Johnson in to take on much of the interior work — including the ground-floor restaurant that would become as legendary for its impeccable design and sleek appointments as for its clientele of celebrity wheeler-dealers.

The restaurant’s wood-paneled Grill Room, with thousands of brass rods hanging from its ceiling, and the main dining room, dubbed the Pool Room because of the marble reflecting pool at its center, its corners defined by tall potted trees swapped out with the seasons, will remain intact, having been designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as an interior landmark in 1989.

Wright auction house founder Richard Wright presided over the live sale, which took place in the restaurant itself.

A suite of Mies’s Barcelona chairs and ottomans long greeted guests in the Four Seasons’ lobby. One pair of chairs alone fetched $21,500, more than three times their high estimate.



Left: Hans J. Wegner’s 1949 teak and leather Classic chairs were set at the tables in the mezzanine of the restaurant’s Grill Room. Right: Mies’s cantilevered, tubular chromed-steel Brno chairs remained in use for nearly six decades in the Pool Room.



The potted trees that marked the corners of the Pool Room’s eponymous water feature — shown here in a photograph from 1959, shortly after the restaurant opened — were switched out four times a year, to reflect the changing seasons. Photo by Bettmann / Getty Images

If the wood-paneled walls of the restaurant’s waiting area could talk, they’d have plenty to say about the restaurant’s famously — and sometimes infamously — boldfaced clientele.

Armless versions of Eero Saarinen‘s Tulip chair sat before the makeup mirrors in the ladies’ lounge.

Among the highlights of the sale was the restaurant’s bronze sign, designed by Emil Antonucci, which brought in $120,000 against an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000.


“The fact that the sale was held in the original setting was very powerful,” says New York design dealer Cristina Grajales, who attended it alongside such other design notables as Martha Stewart and architect Lee Mindel. “Looking around at the windows, the curtains, the pool gave you an incredible sense of history and nostalgia.”

The iconic designs with which the restaurant was outfitted represent the pinnacle of mid-20th-century furnishings. Like the Four Seasons itself — which failed to obtain a new lease from the Seagram Building’s current owner, Aby Rosen, and will reopen next year in a different Park Avenue location— they are not the least bit dated, nor have they lost one iota of their elegance or power.

In tribute to the late, great Four Seasons, we’ve highlighted offerings from top 1stdibs dealers that will profoundly resonate with modernism-loving fans of the iconic eatery, as well as aficionados who never got the chance to dine there.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Chairs

Offered by Wright Now


Patrons of the Four Seasons were greeted in its travertine marble lobby by a suite of Mies van der Rohe’s tufted-leather and stainless-steel Barcelona chairs, designed in 1929 and “still shockingly modern eighty-seven years later,” says Wright.

Wright’s longstanding 1stdibs storefront, Wright Now, is currently offering a pair of Knoll-manufactured Barcelona chairs in rich red leather that once resided in the Brick and Glass House, a much-lauded architectural masterwork by Chicago firm Krueck & Sexton. The graceful X-legged Barcelona chair, Wright says, is “one of the true icons of the twentieth century — minimal, elegant and sumptuous at the same time.”

Mies van der Rohe Bar Stools

Offered by Danish Modern L.A.

In the Four Seasons’ gleaming, wood-paneled Grill Room, high rollers made deals over cocktails while perched on the leather seats of Mies-designed bar stools. “It’s a clean-lined, perfectly cantilevered stool with a solid steel frame,” says Jessy Tzarax, of Danish Modern L.A., which is offering a newly reupholstered pair made by Knoll in the 1970s. “Mies showed great knowledge in balancing form and function here. It’s a modern classic.”

Hans Wegner Classic Chairs

Offered by Collage

Philip Johnson chose Wegner’s 1949 teak and leather Classic chairs for the Grill Room’s mezzanine, where warm woods reigned. Dallas-based Collage 20th Century Classics currently has a set of six 1970s versions crafted by Danish cabinetmaker Johannes Hansen. “They’re perfect, comfortable, sturdy seating for use by many different body types,” Collage’s Abby Malowanczyk notes. But that’s not all. “They’re sculptural from any angle,” and the farthest thing from trendy, she adds. “They’ll keep their importance as a beautiful, functional object forever.”

Eero Saarinen Tulip Chairs

Offered by Converso

Johnson introduced a space-age note to the restaurant’s ladies’ lounge with armless versions of Saarinen’s 1958 fiberglass Tulip chair that swivel on slender cast-aluminum pedestals. “That chair remains one of my favorite pieces of mid-century modern,” says Chicago-based dealer Lawrence Converso, who is offering a pair of Tulip chairs. “It still reads as futuristic.” The idea for these revolutionary chairs came to Saarinen while pouring pancake batter, according to Converso: “His envisioning the chairs while performing such an everyday task really speaks to the idea that everyone can be privy to high-quality modern design.”

Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable Oyster Dishes

Offered by Connors Roth

Silver oyster and crudité dishes created for the Four Seasons by industrial designer Garth Huxtable and his wife, the influential New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, were big hits at last month’s auction, as dealers and souvenir hunters pushed the lots, estimated to sell in the mid-three figures, into the mid-fours. David Roth, of Chicago’s Connors Roth, already has for sale a 10.5-inch-wide oyster plate stamped with the restaurant’s and maker’s names. “By surviving the restaurant, these plates embody its spirit and legend,” he says.

Mies van der Rohe Brno Chairs

Offered by Silla Fine Antiques

Originally created by Mies van der Rohe in 1929, the groundbreaking Brno chair is a miracle of resilience, simplicity and strength and one of the pioneering designs of the modern movement. “Its squared cantilevered form is a paragon of minimalism,” says Andrew Silla, of Silla Fine Antiques, in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, which has for sale a set of six of the chromed tubular steel pieces. “The chair is practically transparent, a mirror to its surroundings.” Philip Johnson designated custom versions of the Brno as the primary dining chair at the Four Seasons. They remained in use for nearly six decades, their cool steel frames complementing the airy ambience of the Pool Room.

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