words Lesley Jackson + Marcus Fairs
Contemporary furniture is migrating out of the showroom and into the gallery and auction house as collectors snap up the work of leading figures such as Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid. And a new hybrid category known as "design art" has emerged to describe limited edition, contemporary collectible pieces that sit midway between the humble world of furniture and the rarified world of art.
Prices are going through the roof, with chairs and tables changing hands for the kinds of figures usually associated with paintings and sculptures. In April last year, New York gallery Barry Friedman Ltd held a retrospective of Ron Arad's work, and sold the designer's 2001 Corian rocking chair, Oh Void, for $190,000, smashing Arad's record. In December, a prototype of Zaha Hadid's Aqua table for Established & Sons went on auction in New York and sold for $296,000 - a record for a piece of contemporary furniture.
"Design is very much following the pattern of the contemporary art market," says Alexander Payne, head of contemporary furniture at New York auctioneer Phillips de Pury & Company. "In the last 18 months the market has noticeably picked up. Interest is getting stronger and stronger from contemporary art collectors, who are now looking to design. People are looking around and finding that architecture and design today are as stimulating as art."
"The market's taking off," says Mark Holmes of Established & Sons, which manufactured Hadid's table. "For the first time ever, it's seen to be a sound investment."
Although Established & Sons produces a number of affordable pieces, it has also astutely targeted the collectors market with big-ticket, limited edition pieces by desirable names such as Hadid, Future Systems and Barber Osgerby. Holmes adds
that brand-new pieces are now in more demand than classic "mid-century modern" items, which have long been sought by collectors: "[Hadid's table] sold in the same year it was made. Normally they've been around for a few years."
While prices are still nowhere near those fetched by the work of some contemporary artists, the explosion of interest in limited edition and one-off furniture pieces suggests that design's position as the poor relation of art might finally be changing.
"It's hard nowadays to draw lines between disciplines that were defined decades ago," says Marc Benda, director of Barry Friedman Ltd, which shifted its focus from historical design to contemporary in 2002.
"Today's production processes and new materials allow artists and designers to arrive at similar aesthetic and material conclusions, irrespective of the functionality or purpose of the work."
Benda adds that collectors are realising that design is an undervalued and relatively untapped market that is ripe for speculation. "Many important collectors are focusing on the quality of the artworks they buy and are realizing that supplies of historic works are dwindling. In the contemporary design field, true masterworks are still available. Price levels have gone up, but are still far from the record prices for contemporary art or historic design."
Galleries and auctions are stepping forward to cater for this new breed of "art design" collector. Influential New York design retailer Murray Moss recently opened a gallery next door to his store in SoHo, where he holds regular selling shows of work by mostly European designers. The December sale of modern furniture at Phillips de Pury & Company raised $4.3 million and broke price records for seven designers. A dining suite by Carlo Mollino sold for $198,000, Marc Newson's 1988 Black Hole table sold for $186,000 and Tord Boontje's 2004 Come Rain, Come Shine chandelier went for $16,800.
Also in December, a new annual exhibition called design.05 Miami was staged in the Florida city alongside the art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach - one of the most important events in the art calendar (icon 032). It was the highest-profile "design art" show yet held and did $7 million worth of business. "For a first-time design event it's truly astounding," says design.05 co-director Ambra Medda. "Collecting design has become more and more hip".
"We were amazed by the response," says Payne, who organised Phillips de Pury's presence at design.05 Miami. "People are understanding this is a very exciting area. People are buying for their investment portfolios. Museums are buying - they're eager to get work by leading architects and designers in their collections, especially Zaha Hadid, Marc Newson, Ron Arad and the Bouroullec brothers."
The price boom is partially driven by American collectors who have already covered their walls with art and are now looking to complement that with furniture of equivalent rarity. "They're buying design to go with their art," adds Payne.
Although the US offers the most lucrative market for design art, it is also popular with European collectors. "They're looking for great pieces at the same level of quality as they can find in art," says Clémence Krzentowski of Galerie Kreo in Paris. Acting as producer as well as retailer, Galerie Kreo sells limited edition pieces by the Bouroullecs, Martin Szekely and Marc Newson. Prices range from €8,000 for a ceiling light by the Bouroullecs to €32,000 for a bookcase by Szekely.
While designers will profit from this situation, it will not necessarily affect the way they work. "I'm not interested in making pieces especially for the collectors' market," says Tord Boontje. "It's a bit forced. I mean, Arne Jacobsen didn't make his chairs for auction." The market does, however, give Boontje the opportunity to sell what he calls the "experiments" that come out of his studio but don't make it into production. "If we can sell those then it covers the cost of development," he says.
Though Boontje's attitude is pragmatic, there is no doubt that for buyers design is crossing over into an art-market economy. As Murray Moss explains: "As industrial design and home furnishings have come to occupy an increasingly large space in the consciousness of today's consumers, the line between 'design' and 'art' continues toblur, even at times to disappear."