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PROFILE// Peter and Shannon Loughrey

Thoroughly Modern Milieu

Thanks to the Loughreys' dedication to design--and good timing--their L.A. Modern Auction has become the hot spot for mid-20th century furniture.

October 14, 1999|CONNIE KOENENN | 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.

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