At Established & Sons we always intended to keep a mix between production and limited-edition pieces, but as we move forwards we wanted to have a gallery space where we could be more experimental with editions and one-offs. It’s not just going to be a gallery to sell our pieces. We want it to have much more cultural significance than that.
The value of our pieces means that our buyers are obviously high net-worth individuals. There’s also the whole corporate area, with banks building up large collections of design as well as art now. We get a great deal of interest from the City guys, both for investment and personal reasons, as well as museums and other institutions.
I have clients who buy the Zaha Hadid Aqua table as an edition piece and use it as their office desk. And then there are others who buy it and shove it straight into storage. I deal with one of the largest art collectors in the world, and I’ve just sold a number of pieces for his new apartment, which he’s fitting out with editions and one-off pieces by living designers – that’s a decision based on his love of design, but he’s also collecting for investment purposes, so which category does he fall into? I would say that over 60 per cent of collectors are buying these pieces because they think they’re going to show a return at some point.
People in the art world are taking an interest in design. But it’s not all about art collectors deciding to buy into it; there are a number of younger collectors who are interested only in design. My collectors essentially buy both. But they get a little bit resentful that they get seen as jumping onto the design world, because a lot of them have been buying design at auction for years, from more established galleries that deal with furniture. It’s accepted by collectors that there is an opportunity with design, and for them it’s still a relatively lower cost to buy a design piece than a Koons or a Hirst.
The question is always asked, “How long can this go on for?” Well, it can go on for quite a while if the people involved in this business are respectful and take control over how it is run. This is all a new world, really. If it’s not handled properly, then it can cause problems, and the ultimate losers can be the designers themselves, with the value of their own work crashing. You can get a situation where pieces are being put into the market that don’t really warrant it, or there isn’t a reason for them to be an edition or a one-off. It’s our responsibility to ensure that the pieces we’re promoting are pieces that we believe in, with a valid reason for their price. Otherwise, the bubble could very well burst on this industry.
I don’t just look at individual pieces, I look at the designer. I have to see that there’s a longevity to what they’re showing me. It has to have something that takes you somewhere else, and leaves you thinking, “I want to see this in the real world, this has to exist”. Also from a business point of view, I have to know that there’s more there, and I have to follow this with a message to whoever I’m going to be selling to. If somebody’s trying to mimic someone else or trying to follow a current trend, that doesn’t interest me. There has to be integrity in the work and I have to see that individual’s clear signature.
I hate the term design art. I absolutely, really hate it. It’s detrimental to design and designers. I hate this notion of having to have the legitimisation of the art world in order to obtain a certain price level. I think it benefited auction houses when they wanted to show art and design together, but we’re about design, regardless of price point and regardless of whether it’s one-off, edition of six, edition of one hundred. The design world has long been seen as the poor relation to the art world. All the work that I’m involved in has an element of functionality attached to it. Zaha’s Aqua table, yes, of course it has a sculptural element to it, but it’s not a piece of sculpture. You can use it as a space definer, but that’s not what it is. It’s designed as a table, and you can use it as a table.
We set up Design London because we have found with the Carpenters Workshop Gallery that the British are not yet familiar with the world of historical and contemporary design. Historically, people on the continent or in the USA are more aware of Jean Prouvé, Le Corbusier and so on. We needed to bring awareness
to the UK market and create a major event gathering the world’s 20 best galleries. It can only strengthen our local position as the London destination for contemporary design. We want to capitalise on the buzz of London during Frieze Art Fair, and the hopes are to keep a small and tight salon but keep offering the best year on year.
When we started our gallery two years ago, there wasn’t anyone else specialised in this field in the UK. There were some art dealers doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that – focusing on modern design but not really contemporary design. There was a big niche. You need so much money to be a big player in the art market. Yet with a lot of energy and less money, it is possible to become a key player in the design art market. This is from a purely financial viewpoint. But we also love design art and it’s fascinating to work with the most important designers.
We’ve identified two sets of clients. The first is the contemporary art collectors who recognise design as a direct stretch from the arts market as opposed to vertical integration from the antiques business. We see design art as almost the new contemporary sculpture, with a bit of functionality – chair, sculpture, at the end of the day we’re only playing with words, and we see them in the same family. The second set of buyers is people recommended by interior designers.
People still see design as a piece of furniture – with a bit of a glam and sexy angle, but it’s still a piece of furniture. Our challenge is to put functionality aside. We are in the realm of sculptural design, and I’m actually more interested in the aesthetic side of it.
We only show pieces that we can really understand and love because that’s the only way we can defend them. What we do more and more is work with young artists and finance the production of editions, because they are often limited in budget. We are going far back in the process, looking at the feasibility, looking at different materials, right to the end when we promote the work not just in the gallery but linking with partners across the world.
Bearing in mind that this design market didn’t really exist five years ago, now that there’s more money, more interest, we have to be extremely careful that we’re not going to breed monsters.
I think that’s the big danger of this industry. It’s a very new market, there are very few good galleries, and there are very few good artists. It’s our job to make sure that we are going to be extremely thorough in the artists that we are going to promote. It would be, from a purely business point of view, too short-term and narrow-minded to put stuff that is not of the highest standard on the market because it will come back to you.
It’s a business driven by passion, not greed. If I wanted to make big money I should stay in the modern art business, where by selling one painting I could probably make what I would make in two months of promoting an entire design show.
I was a curator at the Design Museum for five years, and ran exhibitions on Peter Saville, Thomas Heatherwick, Marc Newson and Eileen Gray. I was also responsible for the Design Mart exhibition during the London Design Festival, which involved taking five or six designers just out of college and giving them a platform. I realised during that show that that’s really where my interest and forte lay, in the talent spotting. When the time came to think about my eventual departure from the museum, the buoyancy and increasing acceptance of design in the gallery environment made it easier for me to decide to do something independently.
This is very new territory for me. I’m green in comparison to the guys that do Design Miami so I’m taking small steps. I want to see whether all the hype is actually true. September will be a telling time, because of Design London and Established & Sons opening its gallery.
Design galleries in their own right are not news, but I think when major manufacturers started to go into retail the role of the gallery got slightly lost. Now, thanks to wonderful establishments like Design Miami, little galleries are starting feel confident again.
It’s up to a designer how they want to sell their work, if they want to call it art or design. I’m not interested in the term design art. I think it is incorrect, and there are very few people out there to cultivate design art. If there is any crossover it’s simply in the light of the fact that we’ve gone past mere function. Now you need much more of a relationship with the end user. What I’m doing is supporting and promoting designers that want freedom to be more expressive in their work without the constraints of mass manufacturing.
In the West we’ve all got chairs, we’ve all got a kettle. So when our lives are filled with commodities and over-consumption what do we look for? We look for things that speak to us. In response to this throwaway society people want things that will last and will mean something to them, more than what you can find in Argos.
There is interest from buyers of contemporary art, but that just shows the sophistication of the art collector, that they don’t have to see a stretched canvas to see that design also can have that same resonance to it.
I think a lot of the reasons that designers choose design rather than art at tertiary education level is that rather than doing abstract, conceptual pieces they want, at the heart of it, for there to be a utilitarian functional drive. For most people democratisation in design is their goal, to make something that every house has. But I think the rise of galleries will make them question why they are doing work, what they are bringing to a saturated market in doing it, who are they designing for. Throwing money at just anybody because they happen to come out of the Royal College of Art is not a sage business.
You have got to pick your people personally. You can’t imagine that everybody was a Picasso or a Van Gogh back in the 1900s when all the art dealers were thriving.
I don’t think it will change design. I think it will just be another interesting layer and collectively competition is good.
Marc Benda: Ron Arad started doing editions in the 1980s for several reasons. The works were expensive and onerous to make, so it made sense to limit them to justify the high prices they would command. Designers learned from that: by limiting supplies you can establish a market. Today, many designers do that, but stay within the realm of industrial design. However, we only sell limited editions that could not possibly be made in large-scale volumes.
Barry Friedman: The supply of comparable design or art by people who are dead has dried up. Thirty years ago I’d go to Europe and find a wealth of pieces and have to make a conscious choice between Rietveld chairs and Arbus lamps. Today 40 or 50 galleries, auction houses, dealers and collectors are after these same objects, so finding more than one or two – let alone gathering enough for an exhibition – is next to impossible.
MB: That’s a fallacy of new collectors and press. Zaha was a struggling architect for 20 years. She finally got the chance to do the Fire Station at Vitra, then a few other commissions. She became known around the world and then won the Pritzker Prize. So it didn’t come out of nowhere. But there is a recent phenomenon where young designers get elevated because buyers need to get new blood into the game.
Now, doing editions has become a career path. You can go to design school, and instead of hoping for a job at Nike, you can hope to work like an artist, come up with designs that are not bound by functionality, limit them in number, and work with galleries.
MB: I see a lot of Americans trying to. America doesn’t have the same set up as in Europe. Here you learn to supply industry as opposed to create, in many cases. There’s a very clear delineation in schools between the art department and craft and design. It’s very hard here for a designer to get out of one world and into the other.
BF: No, because they are two different objects. They may look similar, but one’s made out of different materials and in a different way. The existence of both is usually a positive thing, as it enhances the piece’s ability to be recognised.
MB: What is really important is that as a gallery, you don’t confuse the two. If the designer goes down both roads, you keep yourself on one side or the other.
In the past, you have commissioned new pieces by collectives such as Droog and Swedish trio Front. Do you see the gallery as a design patron?
MB: I wouldn’t call us a patron. It’s a creative business relationship. You can get deeply involved, you can become very friendly, but at the end of the day, somebody makes something and somebody else sells it.
images Rob Hann