Every now and then a smaller auction comes a long that sums up what is happening culturally and stylistically. Such is the case of Bonhams’ Bakelite: The Mario Rivoli Lifetime Collection which will go under the hammer on January 12, 2022 in Los Angeles. It’s bold, colorful and statement making. It’s optimistic and playful. It is vintage, something novice and starter collectors are becoming more interested in due to their sustainability and different periods to which they might be attracted. Although we are having a ‘60s and ‘70s revival in fashion and jewelry and Bakelite was patented in the 1900s and most popular during the 1920s-1940s, the whimsical and vivid nature and the materials made a comeback during these colorful decades. This is also when owner of the collection, Mario Rivoli, began his fascination with Bakelite in New York and became a lifelong collector.
“Designed with strong Art Deco geometric influences, this particular style first gained notoriety at the 1984 Art Deco Show in Philadelphia, PA, when it was purchased for $250. At the time this was an unprecedented price paid for Bakelite. Today, the “Philadelphia” bracelet remains one of the most sought-after pieces of Bakelite jewelry.” explains Bekka Saks, specialist at Bonhams.
Saks continues, “This collection is undeniably special in both its size and completeness in covering the variety of styles of bangles that were made, such as ‘dot,’ ‘zigzag’ and ‘bowtie’. It’s also impressive that a collection this size and quality [328 lots] could be created before the Internet was an option for buying. If you think about all of the possible estate sales, trade shows, and other buying avenues that the collector would have gone to over many decades, it’s astonishing. It’s clear that an artist’s eye and a great amount of time went into the curation of this collection.”
Mario Rivoli created wearable art himself throughout the 1960s and 70s. Saks continues, “Rivoli’s had an eye for intriguing design and his own work is in many distinguished private, corporate, and public collections, including those of Elton John, the late Leona Helmsley, The Whitney Museum of Art in New York, The Museum of International Folk Art, and Kaiser Permamente in Denver. He has exhibited at galleries in Colorado, New York, Maine, and California. Additionally he curated a show of his various “Collections of 100 Things” at the Art Museum in Pueblo, Colorado. Mario’s work was included in Julie Dale’s landmark book “Art To Wear,” and in the 2020 show “Off the Wall: American Art To Wear” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
The Bonhams’ catalog describes Bakelite as “recognized as the world’s first completely synthetic plastic. Beginning in the 1920s, it became a popular material for jewelry, and designers such a as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli used it for jewelry and for specially designed dress buttons. From the 1920s-1940s, Bakelite was an exceptionally popular way to stylishly accessorize any wardrobe, home or lifestyle.”
There are certain designers who continue to work with Bakelite today but very few. The vintage Bakelite has continued to appreciate over time and the most uncommon pieces have become rare and harder to find. This collection features everything from jewelry to napkin rings and salt shakers from geometric Art Deco designs to the more tongue -in-cheek fruits and vegetables—in an array unique and vivid hues.
Sak explains“Bakelite’s hard plastic material enabled it to be cut, polished, and formed, making it ideal for whimsical fruit designs such as this. Red is one of the most sought-after Bakelite colors, and the classic cherry design is one of the most popular Bakelite forms, forming a perfect pair in this eccentric bauble. Its unique and flamboyant style would be a great addition for both new and experienced Bakelite collectors.”
She continues, “Also referred to as the ‘Material of 1,000 uses,’ Bakelite was not solely used to produce wearable art. In fact, various home goods were made from Bakelite as well, including these ergonomic salt and pepper shakers. The fact that they are designed to not only fit together, but also to mix and match between sets makes them even more of a coveted collector’s item.”