New York City’s Four Seasons was the most expensive restaurant in history when it was built and outfitted in the 1950s. By its opening in 1959, costs had ballooned to some $4.9 million—roughly $40.6 million in today’s dollars.
In a 1999 feature in Vanity Fair, architect Philip Johnson described the job as “an architect’s dream come true … We got whatever we wanted.”
And so every detail, from the caviar spoons to the herring wagons, was painfully considered—often times by the best design minds of the era. Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Ada Louise Huxtable, who have all been credited with defining and advancing design in the ‘50s and ‘60s, were hired to create banquettes, lobby seating, and flatware that were quintessentially modern America: uncomplicated but impeccable; functional but subversively stylish.
On July 26, two weeks after the Four Seasons finished its last dinner service in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, these objects will go to auction in the restaurant’s famous Pool Room.
There are over 600 lots, including “perching sofas” by Johnson, tulip chairs and bronze bar tables by Eero Saarinen, dining chairs by Hans Wegner, and brandy snifters from Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable.
Also on offer: serving carts, chargers, and ashtrays. Bread baskets and oyster dishes. Cream and sugar vessels. Iced tea spoons and tableside wine coolers.
Prices start as low as $100, but Wright, the auction house, estimates that big-ticket items—like the lobby’s seating installation, Murmuration, which was created by Johnny Swing out of stainless steel and welded nickels—will fetch more than $100,000.
And then there’s banquette 32, where Philip Johnson sat when he visited the restaurant. That particular lot, the same place where Princess Di sat for lunch when she visited, is also expected to fetch a pretty penny.
The fact that these items are going to auction is pretty incredible. Duplicates of some of these items can be found in the Museum of Modern Art; this interior was called the best example of International Style in America and became an official New York City landmark.
These objects, which have lived inside the Four Seasons’ airy, bronze-and-travertine rooms for decades, were not just a natural extension of the place’s modern cuisine and powerful clientele: They helped redefine luxury in the restaurant world. In the 1950s, the most famous restaurants were still heavily decorated. The Four Seasons, in which every object was designed functionally and edited fastidiously, was practically unadorned in comparison.
The restaurant provided a perfect backdrop for Park Avenue power lunches, and sand perfectly in tune with the menu, which was just as labored over and exacting. (Legendary food critic Mimi Sheraton, who did research for the restaurant in advance of its opening, mentioned at the auction preview that the research team spent “two weeks deciding which pepper to serve” and another week deliberating over “how coarse it needed to be.”)
Even if you’re not a design nerd, and even if you never experienced the Four Seasons as a highlight of a long-ago trip to New York City, this auction is something special.