Taking stock of design art

As the recent design-art phenomenon looks ever more out of step with the times, a victim of the downturn and changing attitudes to conspicuous consumption, John Stones checks out an attempt to take stock of this era of excess


Among the eclectic art works at Mythologies, the recent show staged by the Haunch of Venison art gallery at its new premises in London’s Mayfair, were two of Stuart Haygarth’s Aladdin pieces. Undeniably eye-catching, they display a level of skill, craft and care absent from some of the other exhibits, in thrall as they are to the still pervasive Marcel Duchamp-inspired notion that any idea, however vapid and clumsily executed, is worthy of our attention.

Haygarth was profiled on these pages after his chandelier designs were a hit at the 2005 Designersblock in London. In the meantime, his creations have undergone as thorough a transformation as the various found objects that constitute them. Starting out as a designer’s pet project, they quickly became comfortably at home in the rapidly nascent limited-edition design-art category. Now they are simply art, and Haygarth represented by the gallery.

The language used to describe Haygarth’s work has undergone a rhapsodic transformation too. Take these lines about Aladdin from the catalogue: ‘There lingers some discomfort and uncertainty, as if we are forcibly being made voyeurs of the intimate rituals of other people’s lives. He draws us in with a childlike wonder and, once captivated, we are left contemplating our own insignificance as we see former family items discarded more often than not because the owner is no longer alive.’

If a day is a long time in politics, then a couple of years are surely an eon in design. Two years ago, people were falling over themselves to offer limited-edition pieces and design art. Manufacturers like Established & Sons and galleries such as the Gagosian in New York cultivated superstars such as Marc Newson and Zaha Hadid, and a design-art gold rush was started. There was some consternation, but most kept quiet, while the money quickly seduced others. Enormous sums were being achieved for works at auction and a whole new discourse quickly emerged. Venerable names such as Vitra quickly jumped on board, and design graduates had their heads turned too, comparing a traditional design career with superstardom and deciding that the latter was more attractive. As an ego-massaging marketing strategy for a time of excess, it was perfect.

But now the oligarchs have retreated, the bankers’ bonuses have diminished and the tax havens where the rich squirreled away the money for million-pound tables are under threat. Not only has the money gone, but the cult of conspicuous consumption has been reversed into a New Frugality, leaving the limited edition looking perilously exposed.

It’s an interesting time to publish the first monograph on the phenomenon: Limited Edition by Sophie Lovell (published by Birkhäuser, priced £39.50). Beautifully designed by Australian group Rinzen, it was no doubt commissioned at the height of the bubble, and has unintentionally become a snapshot of that moment of excess. While Lovell carefully brings together the key players from around the world and makes the obvious categorical distinctions (prototypes, one-offs and ‘editions’), she is happy to sit on the fence and provide a largely uncritical – if undeniably pretty – survey of the more experimental and expensive furniture of recent times.

Lovell suggests that these are ‘taken out of the industrial manufacturing system’, naively ignoring a different, more intangible, system of manufacture, that of perceived value and reputation – perhaps the design equivalent of financial derivatives. She accepts that the ‘luxury of hindsight’ will be needed to understand the phenomenon, something that might be arriving faster than anticipated.

Phillips de Pury, the London auction house that did so much to promote design art, has found the going tough and has had to be rescued by Mercury, a Russian luxury retailing group.

This week it puts Newson’s Lockheed Lounge under the hammer. Described as one of four ‘early artist’s proofs’, the auctioneer boasts its ‘exceptional provenance’ (it belonged to Newson’s mum and featured in a Madonna video) and has put an estimate of £500 000 to £700 000 on it. It will be interesting to see who buys it, for how much and with what money.



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