20th Century Design

Collector Q&A: Mid-Century and More with John Birch, Founder of WYETH

By Sotheby's

A s the founder of WYETH, the New York City institution that renewed the interest in all things mid-century modern, John Birch has an eye for discovery. He’s the kind of collector who sees the beauty in a vintage medicine ball just as he can identify a pristine Nakashima design from a glance. The name WYETH has become synonymous with Birch’s exceptional aesthetic and collection which is particularly inspiring for how the various pieces work together in unexpected ways.

In honor of our upcoming WYETH Warehouse Sale, a rare offering of museum-quality mid-century pieces from the private WYETH Warehouse, we sat down for a conversation with Birch about everything design. From the surprising items that fill his home to the mid-century names everyone should be collecting, here’s a glimpse inside the mind of one of the design world’s most celebrated talents:

Since you opened your first gallery in Tribeca in 1994, how have your taste and interests evolved?
Without formal training and knowledge, you depend on pure instinct. In my opinion, a learned experience allows you to be more open and accepting to diversions that you couldn’t have imagined.

Has it been particularly hard to part with specific pieces over the years?
Yes, all too often it is, although it’s never something obvious. It’s usually a piece that’s unique, handmade, precious, and irreplaceable.

Would we be surprised with anything you live with at home?
A JBL Metregon audio cabinet because it is solid, vintage Tannoy speakers because they are perfect, and McIntosh tube amplifiers for power, combined with tribal sculptures which are complementary to all of the above.

Any guilty pleasures?
Living near the beach.

A seating area created by Birch that is a masterful lesson on the importance of texture. The layered burl table has just as big of a presence as the corner sectional, but it doesn’t overwhelm thanks to the intricate but subtle texture. Velvet is a common thread that unifies the pink accent seating with the purple sectional.

You’re very adept at mixing everyday found objects, like vintage medicine balls and globes, with more refined pieces like George Nakashima. What are the do’s and don’ts for mixing high and low?
I set the standard for all objects of design primarily based on the highest quality of materials, construction, and design. It takes all three. The best quality items live well together, whether they are expensive or not. For instance, good tribal, great industrial, and quality lighting can be a winning combination.

When we think of some of the markets you’ve championed, we think of designers like Wegner, Kjaerholm, and Wormley, but who are some of your favorite painters, photographers, and sculptors?
Isamu Noguchi, Richard Serra, and Alberto Giacometti. I also love Cindy Sherman, Rachel Feinstein, John Currin, Clifford Ross, and Richard Prince.

What are three key pieces of modern design that you would recommend to a young collector to invest in?
A dining table, a low table, and a desk. If you visit our showroom, we can elaborate.

A living room vignette by Birch that’s all about proportion. An over-scaled Windsor chair brings a touch of wit to a grouping of familiar mid-century silhouettes.

Besides Dunbar, who do you consider the best American mid-century manufacturers of furniture?
Brickel Associates for Ward Bennett Designs, vintage Knoll and art metal from numerous designers, and Cushman Furniture by Herman DeVries.

How about lighting and accessories?
The American designer Cedric Hartman is the best lighting designer and manufacturer in modern history, including the past fifty years.

We know you love ceramics. Who are some lesser known or unsung heroes?
I love the Arabia Finland Studios ceramicists Rut Bryk and Michael Schilkin.

How did your work as a gallerist evolve into that of a designer?
We strive to fulfill our clients’ desires and needs. There are voids in the vintage supply to satisfy the evolving demands of today’s interior designer, so I design things that have never existed to fulfill those needs.

Can you please tell us what you’re working on now?
Great design with purpose.

Shop the WYETH Warehouse Sale on Sotheby’s Home.

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