From lavish boom to steady sophistication

Design art has come a long way since the brash days a few years ago. Indeed, there is a new maturity to the work, argues Will Sorrell

Perhaps the recession has done design art a favour. The peak in this burgeoning market a few years ago caused cynicism from the design community, mainly due to lots of people jumping on the bandwagon of a lucrative new discipline. Now this is over, we can start to see design art as what it is – another channel for designers to sell their work, creating more jobs and bringing new wealth to the design industry. It is also a way for designers to experiment creatively, with more control over the outcome than they would have designing for a manufacturer.

The channels through which design art can be purchased are the same as when the market was at its peak two or three years ago. There are a dozen or so galleries globally that deal exclusively in design, and many more that sell a mix of design and fine art. Phillips de Pury, Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses all have design sales, and departments to match, whereas Chicago auction house Wright focuses almost exclusively on design. Design Miami and Basel are the big selling fairs, but other design festivals – notably the London Design Festival, the Milan furniture fair and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York – are the platforms to create a buzz around particular designers or works of design.

Gallerists that deal in design have had to tighten their belts over the past year. The frequency of shows has slowed everywhere. In London, Established & Sons has focused on its manufacturing range rather than commissioning one-offs. David Gill Gallery’s Fulham Road space has been closed. In New York, Moss Gallery has sold half of its showroom space to Flos.

The fate of commercial design fairs is linked to that of design galleries, which will only show if they will see some kind of return on the price of their stall. At Design Miami in 2008, 23 galleries took part, plummeting to 14 in 2009. Despite this, the mood in 2009 was one of cautious optimism, reflected in the forecast for an increased number of occupied stalls in 2010. This positive attitude must be partially relatedto the increase in visitors to the design section of the fair in 2009, showing that although gallerists were worried about sales, the public awareness of and interest in design art is still spreading.

Design’s auction market has experienced changes since its first peak a couple of years ago, when there seemed to be fierce competition for everything, no matter how brash, bold and quirky. For the past 18 months, furniture by renowned early 20th-century designers has sold consistently, with lots by contemporary designers faring worse in comparison. Where new design has sold, it has been a lower-risk investment – more conservative work by better-known designers.

Auction houses, have, though, maintained their commitment to the design market. Phillips de Pury, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have kept design sales on their calendars for the upcoming year.

The way design art is being sold is changing. Phillips de Pury has, for example, had a ’selling exhibition’ at the Saatchi Gallery. Rabih Hage’s DeTnk has launched a ’pop-up shop’ in his Sloane Street gallery. High-end collectible design is being made more easily available for purchase. Perhaps this is the latest twist in the relationship between design and art: design hijacking fine art gallery space, then transforming it into a retail shop.

Meanwhile, the financial sector is indicating its support for design as a viable investment. The Financial Times Weekend now has Rabih Hage writing a weekly design round-up. As well as supporting Design Miami/Basel, last month HSBC Private Bank launched Why What How: Collecting Design in a Contemporary Market, a guide for investors written by gallerist Libby Sellers.

So there is still a taste for design art, despite the fact that the recession has put a stop to some of the lavish spending that previously characterised the market. Perhaps this has been good for the sector – it looks like some of the more questionable copycat work produced at the market’s peak has been culled. More thought is going into work and prices are becoming more realistic.

Collecting contemporary design is now a decade-old practice, and, judging by what sells at auction these days, the taste of the collectors has become more refined. They are learning about design history and developing their own aesthetic, rather than just deciding that the Marc Newson would be good under the Damien Hirst in their London Docklands penthouse. The design art market is here to stay, and, thankfully, it is becoming more sophisticated.

Will Sorrell is a creative consultant specialising in exhibition project management. He recently completed an MA thesis on gallery dealers in London’s design art market

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