Opinion – Libby Sellers


The Irony in my questioning the ‘design art phenomenon’ is not lost on me. As curator-turned-design dealer, I’ve seen both sides of the limited edition cast bronze coin and am, I guess, part of its currency. Rather than encouraging the hype, my concern is with questioning the misnomer of ‘design art’ and the suggestion (accusation?) that it is a bandwagon on to which designers, dealers and collectors are all jumping.

Coined in 1999 by Alexander Payne, design director of Phillips de Pury, the term ‘design art’ grew from a need to differentiate the fine arts, the applied arts and the design arts – that is, functional objects produced since the Industrial Revolution. For a brief period the auction house employed the term to describe a type of design that shared the traditionally perceived tenants of art (autonomy, exclusivity and expressivity), but subsequently it has dropped the ‘art’ and concluded that this is ‘design’, albeit one facet of it.

In 2005, the academic and critic Alex Coles published his interpretation of design art through an investigation into artists working with design typologies. This spin on the term discussed works from Henri Matisse’s interiors for Rockefeller’s town house to the more recent fabric designs Takashi Murakami conceived with Marc Jacobs.

Neither Phillips de Pury nor Coles are under scrutiny here. My gripe is with the subsequent appropriation of the term as a catch-all phrase for both 20th and 21st century objects that sell through gallery or auction environments, or for objects that seem more conceptually challenging than the designs readily available on the high street.

Like many within the industry, I’m uncomfortable with the negative connotations and applications of the term, particularly the implied displacement of design as a marginalised sector of the art industry. It is also disheartening that the merits of this sector are primarily calculated through the prices fetched. Rarely is an article published on design art in which record-breaking prices aren’t mentioned in the opening paragraph. I’m certainly not innocent of this. Surely in an era in which the effects of globalisation and homogenisation are debated daily, and when advanced production techniques are liberating designers from the traditional designer/manufacturer relationship, there is scope for an assessment of the role of limited edition design beyond its monetary value.

While I question the undertones of the term design art, I am often listed among the handful of dealers in London who are commissioning and promoting this ‘new market’. And therein lies the other half of my concern – the suggestion that this market is new.

Perhaps a more appropriate description might be ‘renewed’, for there are many parallels between what we are witnessing now – both from designers and collectors, and other significant moments in design history.

Also criticised for attracting the attention of a wealthy clientele, the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late Victorian period emerged at the beginning of a serious economic recession and towards the end of a century in which efforts were being made to address what were seen as the devastating effects of industrialisation on the design and manufacture of goods.

It was never suggested, implicitly or otherwise, that machine production and commercial manufacture were the enemy or should be abandoned. Instead, the 19th century movement sought to elevate the status of the craftsman and give due recognition to the individual through a reappraisal of the role of the applied arts in society as a whole.

This liberal approach saw like-minded patrons commission entire environments – fine art, architectural features and furnishings – with consideration for the gestalt, or the unified whole. Similarly, the patrons of today’s market are seeking considered collections of both art and design – collections that go beyond what’s on their walls or plinths, to their physical surroundings. Even the Modernists, the arbiters of machine manufacturing and standardisation, created objects in small runs or that were beyond the capabilities of the contemporary manufacturing technologies. Eileen Gray, the Irish-born, French-based architect and designer, sold her own prototypes alongside those of her peers in her Parisian gallery in the 1920s, while Charles and Ray Eames designed pieces that often relied on handcraftsmanship or were too organic in form for industrial production. Then there are the examples of the designer/makers during the 1980s and 1990s who, lacking the support of the international manufacturers, could only realise their designs in small editions sold through galleries. Witness early examples of work by Ron Arad, Marc Newson and Tom Dixon.

Like all creative activities, there are good designs and bad. Free from the constraints of industrial production and mass-marketing, designers today are being offered opportunities that increase the possibility of producing the latter. But this market is also encouraging the exploration of materials, processes and theories that will hopefully produce the former and, for this, it should be encouraged.

Libby Sellers is a design curator based in London, largely responsible for the current obsession with design art because of her Grandmateria exhibition

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