Challenging artistic values

The growing market for limited edition and collectors’ pieces is blurring the distinction between the art and design worlds

Opinions on the place of limited edition and collectors’ pieces in design have long varied but if the current state of the limited edition design market is anything to go by, it is a growing hotbed that cannot be ignored.

The forthcoming season’s round of design and art fairs – the London Design Festival, the inaugural Design Art London, and Frieze included – will see a flurry of design galleries opening their doors to the art market. Perhaps most notable among them is upmarket furniture manufacturer Established & Sons, which has made the decision to launch its own dedicated gallery – Established & Sons Limited gallery – for its one-off superstar design creations not at the LDF, but during the Frieze Art Fair.

Gallery Libby Sellers, the new, eponymously named gallery run by the former Design Museum curator, which will feature an exhibition of specially commissioned limited edition design pieces, is hoping to fly the flag for design in the art quarters during Frieze, as well as at the London Design Festival.

Even contemporary art and design auction house Phillips de Pury is preparing to carve a niche in the burgeoning ‘design art’ market with the launch of a new European headquarters in London, designed by architect Nissen Adams and designer Bill Katz, early next year.

It plans to repeat the success of its New York operation, where some contemporary design prototypes, conceptual pieces and limited editions are going for six-figure sums.

Fairs such as Design Miami/Basel have had a hand in helping the growth of the market, according to Sellers.

‘Fairs like these have shown there is a collector out there who is interested in product design,’ says Sellers.

So, what is it exactly that buyers are looking for? ‘Collectors want luxurious interiors and items that sit as well alongside their Picassos as they do their architecture,’ says Karen Malacarne, spokeswoman for Established & Sons.

It is, according to Sellers, the desire for ‘complete immersion in creativity’. ‘They want something that speaks to them metaphorically, with design that has moved past utilitarianism, to touch us on an emotive level,’ says Sellers.

But what exactly is the difference between a well-designed Ross Lovegrove chair for Cappellini, for example, and a one-off Ross Lovegrove chair for Established & Sons? Surely, functionality, intention and materials are enough to constitute a good, and hence, valuable design?

The difference, according to Sellers, is the creativity afforded the designer by the manufacturer or commissioner. Creating limited edition pieces is an experience that allows designers to work with materials and processes they never could if these pieces were being mass marketed.

The ‘creativity’ involved in producing collectors’ ranges actually contributes to its evolution into something beyond design, points out Malacarne.

‘The difference between collectors’ and production ranges is that rare pieces lose qualities associated with design [such as day-to-day functionality] and begin to take on new qualities, typically associated with art. This is causing a rethink of what design is. A new branch of design is emerging,’ she says.

Others, like furniture designer Matthew Hilton, are uncomfortable about the categorisation and association of design with art, which is increasingly rearing its head. ‘It’s a bit pedantic, but if you’re designing a piece of furniture, it’s not art. Artists by definition have complete freedom to explore ideas, while designers work within [time, material or production] constraints. Trying to get a product through the production process with such constraints essentially tests the skill set of a designer. It’s completely different to that of an artist. When design is practised at its best, it’s no less creative than art. All this about art and design colliding, I just don’t think it’s true,’ says Hilton.

Such a viewpoint raises issues about the value and integrity of design. Does a beautifully sculpted piece constitute a good design or is it functional art?

Hilton says that although his viewpoint leans towards the democratisation of design, definitions of what constitutes a valuable design can vary widely.

He adds that the limited edition market has a completely different way of working to the mass market, one that needs to be approached with integrity and understanding.

All of this brings into question whether or not the different mentalities of art and design can ever successfully coexist. Malacarne points out that designers have a tendency to work with several commissioners and manufacturers at a variety of levels in the market, something that is eschewed in the art world.

‘One of the potential problems when it comes to the limited edition market is how to retain exclusivity and loyalty. One of the things in the art world is that artists are always loyal to their gallery or agent, but the design industry has a very different mentality. The working relationship with a designer needs to be one of principle, understanding and respect. If this works, then it is not possible to recreate what the designer does with another manufacturer,’ says Malacarne.

We will just have to wait and see how designers evolve alongside the blossoming limited edition market.

• A prototype of Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge (1985) made history in 2006 as the highest-ever price paid at auction – $968 000 (£509 000) – for the work of a living designer
• New York gallery Barry Friedman sold Ron Arad’s 2001 Corian chair for $190 000 (£106 000) in 2005
• Zaha Hadid’s Aqua table, produced for Established & Sons, netted $296 000 (£165 000) at a Phillips de Pury auction in New York in 2005
• Amanda Levete and Zaha Hadid are working on Size and Matter – an installation, created for the London Design Festival, that will be auctioned off by Phillips de Pury in October

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