Play to the gallery

Eyes are turning to furniture this week, with the upper class of designers – and their gallery representatives – travelling to Miami’s Design District to market design-art pieces to collectors.

New Tryst tables by architect Nigel Coates and Zaha Hadid’s latest product design creation, Dune Formations, are among the pieces being launched by David Gill Galleries at Design Miami this week.

Next week, London sees a similar roster of names unveiled at the Design Museum in the form of Vitra Editions, an initiative that goes some way to connecting the limited edition, design-art phenomenon back to the furniture industry.

Leading designers are invited to Vitra and given a carte-blanche brief, to experiment with design ideas that would normally be considered beyond the constraints of mass furniture production.

Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum describes the project as ‘ongoing research’ that feeds directly into Vitra’s main product range. Architects and designers are given ‘the freedom to create experimental furniture objects and interior installations’.

But is there more scope for experimentation involving lesser-known furniture designers and manufacturers in the mid-range market? In France, innovation is assisted by the government-sponsored Valorisation de l´Innovation dans l´Ameublement, which pairs up a broad range of manufacturers with emerging design talent. Meanwhile, in Spain (see feature opposite), a sturdy manufacturing industry actively seeks design input to boost its business. This provides a step-up to newer designers who aspire to join the likes of Jaime Hayon at events such as Miami. Could either be a model for the UK’s furniture brands?

By Clare Dowdy

Unlike the UK, Spain still has a reasonably healthy manufacturing base and there are enough small- and medium-sized manufacturers with an appetite for contemporary design to make this a fruitful laboratory for innovation. Barcelona, Valencia and the Basque region are peppered with furniture, lighting and product design consultancies. In recent years, many have shown an interest in home-grown design talent. Metalarte, AKABA, Tres Tintas, Luzifer, Nani Marquina and ABR have all teamed up with names or soon-to-be names such as Jaime Hayon, Emiliana, Martin Azua, Luís Eslava and Cul De Sac.

This interest in lesser-known Spanish designers has two major roots: one old, one new. For the well-established, often family-run businesses like Barcelonans Metalarte and Tres Tintas, it is a way of re-energising a faded brand. Hence lighting company Metalarte’s sub-division Metalab, which produces pieces designed by Hayon and Emiliana. For Metalarte’s marketing director Roman Riera the pressing question was, ‘How do we get famous quickly in Spain, when we have been operating since 1932?’

While not all these creations have translated into good sales, they’ve certainly been good for the company’s image, and that’s fine, says Viviana Narotzky, senior research fellow in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art. ‘In Spain there isn’t a huge market for experimental design, just a little bit in Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. How many companies live off selling experimental design? Image-making products that position a business within a broader market are part of the branding process.’ Her book, La Barcelona del Diseño, examines design in Barcelona from the 1960s to the present day and was published by Santa & Cole in Spanish recently.

The 46-year-old wallpaper company Papeles Pintadas Aribau has also set up a new arm, hoping to appeal to a younger consumer with avant-garde designs. Tres Tintas is run by the owners’ sons, and its latest range, called All City Papers, is the work of a trio of young Barcelonan illustrators who call themselves Inocuo Design.

Internationally renowned rug designer Nani Marquina makes an impressive ambassador for young local talent. She’s produced pieces by Emiliana, Azua, Ricard Ferrer, Marti Guixé, Toni Arola and others, and says she is not afraid of getting involved with relatively untried and untested designers.

She met her latest finds, Javier Taberner and Nacho Poveda, at Nude, Valencia’s annual salon for up-and-coming designers, in 2005. The pair, who are both in their early 20s, only graduated this year. ‘I have the capacity to direct new people, I have a vision,’ says Marquina.

Valencian lighting company Luzifer also uses Nude as a source. Founders Marivi Calvo and Sandro Tothill spotted Burkhard Dämmer there and commissioned him to create their Icon and the Club ranges.

While many Spanish clients appreciate the potential benefits of using the country’s design talent, others are yet to catch on. But business-minded creatives see this as an opportunity. ‘Designers search out second-tier companies that need to make a change with design, and that designer will be their only designer, and it’s like a dream,’ says Azua.

Ferrer backs this up. ‘There are a lot of old-fashioned companies that need designers because they don’t have a brand. Now, they’re starting to work with designers.’ He has direct experience of this with small, privately owned Disand in Tarragona, for which he created a new identity and catalogue, and his Loop collection. ‘That’s the profile of a lot my clients. If they don’t make these changes, these companies will die.’

Narotzky at the Royal College of Art also thinks that the current rude health of the economy boosts conventional clients’ confidence in dealing with these young guns. ‘Right now they feel secure in being experimental,’ she says. She also makes a pragmatic point, ‘Younger designers are cheaper.’ Which surely bodes well for Spain’s latest clutch of Hayon wannabes.

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