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Tips For Buying And Collecting Designer Chairs

Collecting chairs might, on the surface, sound like a rather quirky hobby. But, as confirmed chair enthusiast Loh Lik Peng outlines, it can be an altogether more serious business.

Loh Lik Peng: "Thankfully, I have hotels i can put the chairs in because I ran out of space at home and a lot of chairs are in storage."

As the man behind hip boutique hotels such as Wanderlust in Singapore, Town Hall in London and The Waterhouse in Shanghai, Loh Lik Peng certainly knows a thing or two about design but few know that he is also a passionate chair collector. Here, we speak to him about his rather quirky hobby and how it has influenced his aesthetic point of view.

Melissa Lwee-Ramsay: So, chairs. That’s a fairly unique thing to collect. How did it all begin?

Loh Lik Peng: It all started when I was at college in the UK. I was looking for second-hand furniture for my apartment and as I was looking around I noticed that some chairs were more expensive than others. I then asked myself why this was the case. I later realised that they were original mid-century vintages and I thought they were pretty cool with unusual designs, so I bought them. Original vintages are more expensive but they are also more interesting. This initial acquisition of one or two pieces to furnish my apartment was the spark and piqued my interest in chairs. I did more homework, read more books, did research and, before I knew it, I started collecting more and more.

Do you remember your first big purchase?

It was the 1960s Charles and Ray Eames DCW, a dining chair made out of wood. At that time, it was quite expensive. I paid about £300 but, looking back, I think it was a steal! It’s obviously worth a lot more these days. I bought it when I was in college. To be honest, when I purchased it I didn’t know anything about it but I thought it was interesting. I’m glad I bought it but, unfortunately, I don’t have it anymore — it broke.

What sort of chair catches your eye?

I collect mainly mid-century vintage chairs from designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Hans Wegner. I do collect earlier stuff from designers such as Josef Hoffmann but it’s pretty rare. Occasionally, I buy a modern piece but I would say 95 percent is mid-century. Probably because the first piece I bought was mid-century and the fact that they gave birth to modern design. That genesis feeds my interest.

Speaking of interesting chairs. You’re well known for placing barber chairs in all your hotels. It’s become a signature…

Yes, the very first barber chair I bought still sits in my first hotel: 1929 in Singapore. I bought it from a second-hand dealer in Singapore because I liked it very much. People seem to love the barber chairs because it reminds them of their childhood. They are also very solid, hardy and utilitarian, even though they’re really old. They are pretty indestructible and, yet, you can put them anywhere and they still look cool. The only problem is that they’re quite expensive to repair as you need to find someone who can work with hydraulics if they break down, but once they’re fixed they last quite a long time. Unless they’re outrageously priced, every time I see a barber chair in good condition, I buy one.

Where do you get your chairs?

These days, there’s the internet but when I first started collecting I was still a college student in London so I would scour around vintage shops and then, after that, I frequented auctions and gradually got to know more dealers. Now I have quite an extensive network, so the dealers know to come to me when they have something interesting.

I suppose it’s because they don’t come by dedicated chair collectors very often?

You’ll be surprised to know that a fair few people collect chairs. It’s why I’ve slowed down on the buying because the price is now very high. In fact, to buy old, original mid-century stuff is very much investment grade already. They’re well into the six figures to acquire. When it becomes that valuable, it’s no longer a hobby and I now have to be very careful with what I buy. I still acquire one or two pieces occasionally but I must really love it to buy it.

Apart from the very expensive chairs, I understand that your hotels boast chairs from your personal collection.

Yes, thankfully, I have hotels I can put the chairs in because I ran out of space at home and a lot of the chairs are in storage. I only put the very hardy chairs out in the hotels. The DCW, for example, broke when I placed it in 1929. It was a lesson learnt but unless they’re very fragile, the majority of chairs I have are fair game. I mean, they’re chairs, they were created to be sat on. Every hotel has about five to six pieces that are from my collection and I guess it’s influenced how I design each hotel. The aesthetics are built around the chair designs that are a mid-century sort of style. I didn’t do it consciously but, upon reflection, they have contributed to the signature look that my hotels have.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start collecting chairs?

Start small, start cheap. Build up your knowledge. When you’re looking at any type of mid-century antique chair, we’re talking serious money. You have to do your homework to be able to deal with the dealers.