Collecting special: Designs on the market

Applied Art. Not so long ago, that was what design was called. Twenty years ago the auction houses periodically held sales of classic and contemporary design pieces, many of which sold for £200-£300 ($330-$490) and even the big ticket items could be had for perhaps a few thousands – a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, an Eileen Gray table and so on.

Then, in the noughties, something happened. Designers, seeing the vast sums to be made in the contemporary art sales, decided they would become artists. Rather than designing to commission or for manufacture, as they had traditionally done, they began to create one-off pieces, to launch “editions”, borrowing the tropes and language of the art market.

For a while, it all went swimmingly. The hybrid which came to be known as “design art” reached stratospheric, artworld prices, famously culminating in Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge, an unuseable – if eye-catching – aluminium sofa which sold at Philips de Pury for £1.1m. Designers basked in the limelight, feted across the world in magazines, festivals, fairs and galleries.

That same year a “Dragon” armchair by Eileen Gray from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent fetched an eye-watering €21.9m ($31.2m) at a sale in Christie’s in Paris. All this in the midst of a recession. Design, it seemed, had truly arrived. But had it?

The idea of buying design for investment is still questionable and the Newson and Gray sales, remarkable as they are, appear to represent aberrations – albeit of the nicest possible kind.

Part of the problem has been a lack of data. The art market is extensively studied, artists’ values are well-known, relatively stable and relatively easy to estimate. There are websites devoted to values and art investment funds. But for the market values of design pieces there have been no such conventional markers.

This anomaly, however, is being corrected. Rabih Hage, gallerist, designer and founder of design think-tank DeTnk, has published a new report which begins to quantify sales by designer, sorts the hype from the value and the PR from the price.

The DeTnk market report, The Rise of the Collectible Design Market 2005-11, is a useful and occasionally surprising document. I ought to mention that I contributed an essay but I hadn’t yet seen the data and wasn’t sure what the report would become.

I met Hage in a café around the corner from his London studio in South Kensington and asked him why he had embarked on the report. “We were all talking about the rise in the design market,” he says, “but wondering, was there really a rise? Was there really a design market? We started looking at the market three years ago, collecting data and observing the sales and changes and over the years the market has proved not only to exist but to be solid. It seems it is here to stay.”

Some things the report reveals merely confirm expectations: for instance, that the US has historically had the largest share of the design market but that its lead is shrinking as Europe catches up. Other facts are less expected, notably the small share of the market taken by contemporary design (7.83 per cent of the total value of the market) while by far the largest chunk is taken up by postwar, mostly French design (32 per cent).

But the most interesting and most surprising part of the report is undoubtedly the “Top 100”, the list of designers whose works have made the most money at auction. The top 10 is dominated by French designers, some of them still far from household names. At number one Emile Jacques Ruhlmann, the master of Art Deco luxury, is perhaps not a surprise (with sales over £6m last year). Diego Giacometti (brother of Alberto) at number two is, while not exactly predictable, no real surprise either. Then come Jean Royère (another early 20th-century master) and Jean Prouvé, whose tough, industrial pieces have been a staple of auctions and exhibitions for half a century and who continues to inspire today’s architects and designers. But then decadent deco designer Armand-Albert Rateau, at five on the list, and kitsch-surreal husband and wife sculptor/designers Claude Lalanne and François-Xavier Lalanne, at six and seven, are hardly household names.

Mark Newson, at number eight, is the first contemporary designer to appear. “It’s interesting,” says Hage, “that Newson has concentrated on product design; his designs haven’t been made specifically for this market.” That is indeed one of the key points that this report highlights. But not perhaps in the way that Newson’s ranking indicates.

The top 100 is remarkably free of industrial designers. In fact, you could argue that most of the great designers of 20th- (and the very few of 21st-) century culture are absent. There’s no Peter Behrens or Dieter Rams, no Raymond Loewy, no Kenneth Grange, no Wilhelm Wagenfeld or Richard Sapper; such big names in modern product design are all missing. That is because, of course, these people designed for mass production and their products became commodities, the volume of their sales an indication of their success and their success a detriment to their rarity value. Thus, through a perverse process, the top 100 becomes a poor indicator of success or influence.

What is also noticeable, and interesting, is the proliferation of architect designers. Jean Prouvé, Gio Ponti, Frank Lloyd Wright and Carlo Scarpa all appear in the top 50, while Zaha Hadid, Pierre Chareau, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto and Frederick Kiesler all appear a little lower down the 100.

This might be partly due to the extra cachet a name garners, but it might also indicate that architects are particularly aware of the value of the object in a setting – often (despite what they might say) leaning towards the monumental and the overtly visual rather than the functional and the self-effacing, a characteristic that is obviously valued by collectors. These are often designs which look more useful than they actually are: in terms of display and of investment they may have found a more natural use than, well ... use.

Another phenomenon which this listing reveals is what sells and what does not. Ron Arad, the darling of the contemporary design art scene, who in recent years has had exhibitions in prestigious international institutions from the Pompidou and MoMA to the Barbican, is placed at an impressive 24 – yet the list also reveals that only 51 per cent of the Arad lots entered into auction sold. This could indicate a problem with oversupply and over-ambition, as the artist dived wholeheartedly and seemingly indiscriminately into the world of editions and one-offs made for the auction house and the gallery rather than working to commission.

Does the list contain hints for the future? Tips for investment? Clues to where the market may go? “It shows the market has reached a kind of maturity,” Hage tells me, flipping through pie charts on his iPad.“I think the next five to 10 years will be more focused on the rarity of the work, on its provenance and historical importance. What the ranking will do [it will be updated at six-monthly intervals] is to help track the evolution of a designer’s record, a career trajectory and because of that it will help collectors feel confident in their pieces.”

Established it may be, but the sales figures show that design is still a relatively fledgling market. Jean Prouvé comes in at number four yet sold less than £2m worth at auction, a small sum compared with some of the big art names (a single Picasso sold last year for £65.5m). Nevertheless it does show that design is now being taken every bit as seriously as art and that, despite a blip in the downturn and a sharp adjustment in a few names prone to oversupply, design at auction is here to stay.

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