Designs on a new century

Mathias Bengtsson's 'Growth Chair' (2012), from Galerie Maria Wettergren, €85,000

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In October 2007, Christie’s of London sold a 1986 “Lockheed Lounge” by Marc Newson, one of 13 in existence, for £748,000. It was a turning point in the perception of “design-art”, a term coined only a few years earlier by auction house Phillips. It is a sign of how fast this market has blossomed that a piece made 30 years ago is beginning to feel vintage. Today, collectors are actively pursuing pieces by rising talent made this side of 2010.

PAD (Pavilion of Art and Design) is a case in point. With 60 exhibitors, it combines primitive and modern art with jewellery, photography and design. This year, 15 of the 28 galleries under the umbrella of design are majoring in contemporary as opposed to mid- to late-20th century. Internationally, these are dominated by Europe and North America, and for the first time the Middle East has a ffayefoot in the door, with the debut of Gallery SMO from Lebanon.

Patrick Perrin, founder of PAD, points out that PAD was embracing the new when Design Miami/Basel was just a twinkle in founder Craig Robins’ eyes. “We were the first fair in the world to exhibit design and 20th-century objects at a time when artist-designers were virtually ignored and unknown,” Perrin says. “Then, from showing the mid-20th century, galleries started to creep towards the 1970s and 1980s but now we include work that is only three, two or even one year old. That is largely a reflection of interest among collectors.”

However, this shiny new arm of the decorative arts offers Perrin its own challenges: “It is more difficult to find one good gallery of design than it is to find 100 good galleries of contemporary paintings,” he says.

Collector Kenny Schachter says the appeal of investing in 21st-century pieces is that there is no consensus as yet. “It is the most exciting branch of art to be involved in right now, because it is a baby market. It doesn’t take a genius to buy a Jean Prouvé, an Eileen Gray or a Jean-Michel Frank – this is about stepping out on your own rather than having those sensibilities foisted upon you.”

'Rotation Armchair' (2012) by Juan and Paloma Garrido

Arguably, it is the injection of post-2010 pieces that keeps a fair such as PAD lively. “Iconic” designs may have genius stamped all over them but, to the art-weary visitor, they do induce a sensation of déjà vu. They also encourage a tickbox mentality among collectors that mirrors that of the fine art world. For Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn, substitute Marc Newson, Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid. How much more stimulating it is to be faced with an object you know nothing about.

Contemporary design fascinates those such as Schachter because often it brings current technologies and processes together with traditional hand skills and noble materials. It pays lip-service to function, but is all about narrative. It may take the form of furniture, lighting or any other decorative object but – like all art movements – it is a barometer of the small piece of time we inhabit.

Many of the most exciting international contemporary galleries at PAD this year are regulars on the Design Miami/Basel circuit, including Gabrielle Ammann, Friedman Benda, Galleria O, Galerie Kreo, Modernity, Priveekollektie and Maria Wettergren. The latter offers the chance to see a piece embodying this techno­logy- meets-craft ethos: Mathias Bengtsson’s “Growth Chair” couples a “digital seed” with the ancient lost-wax casting method, producing a bronze chair that resembles the roots of a tree (2012, edition of eight plus two artist’s proofs [AP], €85,000).

'Kidassia Chair' (2013) by Fernando & Humberto Campana

Dealer Gabrielle Ammann has been a stalwart of London PAD since its inception in 2007, when Perrin began with 20 dealers in a tent in Hanover Square. She says that, in the past five years, there has been unprecedented interest from collectors who invest in contemporary art. “Galleries like my own have little in common with those selling vintage 20th-century design,” she says, “but have a lot of similarities with those selling contemporary art. Like them, we are showing work by living artists – the creative power.”

Ammann champions rising design talents such as Satyendra Pakhalé and Florian Borkenhagen. She is particularly proud of the latter’s Poire Hélène chandelier, constructed from iron and 300 pieces of glass (2013, unique, POA), and the world premiere of the Bronze Age coffee table 01 by Nucleo (unique, POA).

One newcomer is three-year-old Paris gallery BSL. To mark its debut, founder Béatrice Saint-Laurent has curated a stand that celebrates work made this year by notable design artists including Nacho Carbonell, Ayala Serfaty, Taher Chemirik and London’s own rising star, Faye Toogood. The latter will be showing the Caged Elements collection of overscaled coffee table, floor lamp and throne seat in steel, walnut, stone and marble (limited edition of eight plus two AP, €15,000- €19,000). For Saint-Laurent, bringing work from studio floor direct to the fair is precisely a gallery’s vocation. “The role of a gallery such as mine is to present amazing pieces that are close to art and to take risks in doing so,” she says.

Satyendra Pakhalé's 'Horse Chair', at Gabrielle Ammann

Gallery Fumi, a London gallery also part of the DM repertoire, is returning to PAD for its second consecutive year. Like Gabrielle Ammann, Fumi co-founder and director Sam Pratt believes that the overlap between those who buy contemporary art and those who buy contemporary design is now significant. However, he concedes that collectors are understandably cautious about investing significant amounts in objects that are one or two years old, when there is no benchmark against which to assess their value.

“It took people like Marc Newson and Ron Arad 20 years or more to acquire the status they now hold,” Pratt argues, “but we are bringing people to the fair who are untried, because the work is so new. The fact is those superstar designers are probably fully priced, whereas we are working with young talents that we believe still have a long way to go.”

Along with notable works by artists such as Sam Orlando Miller and Studio Silverlining, Fumi is also showing one of the highlights of PAD: Engineering Temporality, a cabinet created by Studio Markunpoika (2012, edition of 12, £20,000), which is inspired by Tuomas Markunpoika’s experience of his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s – he encased a wooden cabinet in steel rings, then burnt the wood away leaving the rings, to represent what had been there before. It is a strangely eloquent and moving piece.

However, does investing in 21st-century design make commercial sense for a collector? Or is it a case of the emperor’s new cabinet? Schachter says prices are at times “incomprehensible and indefensible” but offers these tips to those interested in this growing market: “When you price anything, the first thing to consider is how much it actually cost to fabricate? Then, how old is this person? How many exhibitions have they had? Have they exhibited internationally? Has their work been picked up by any institutions or commercial partners? Have they had any critical response? Based on those criteria, you then have to take an intuitive response balanced by a rational one.”

PAD London, October 16-20, pad-fairs.com

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