To many, the fundamental question of design remains: what makes a design collectible? Design historian Daniella Ohad interrogates this very matter with insights from the past, and seeks to scholars, curators, gallery owners, designers and auction houses to define “collectibility” of our time.
TEXT & IMAGES: Dr. Daniella Ohad
The term “collectible design” has become overrated and glorified in recent years, starring in lifestyle and interior magazines, and more often misinterpreted than attached to its real outline. With this phenomenon, the questions of what is “collectible” contemporary design, and what makes contemporary masterpieces “collectible” have occupied anyone related to this market: architects, collectors, curators, dealers, auctioneer, and collectors. I have been asked those global questions over and over again: in my lectures across the globe; by my clients for whom I have created fine design collections; by trend-setters interior designers and architects seeking to create superbly ‘curated’ interiors where refined objects define the “soul” of the interior. These are the questions that this article comes to address.
When referring to vintage, twentieth-century modern, the definition is well established, recognized, and proven. We seek for a strong provenance, greatness in design, original condition, and rarity, while at the same time the “collectibility” corresponds to the state of the market and taste of the time. The blue chip is found in such examples as an early-produced chaise longue designed at the atelier of Le Corbusier in the 20s, and produced by Swiss Embru-Werke AG, long before it emerged into a design icon; Gerrit Tomas Rietveld’s original plywood chairs, crafted by Gerard van de Groenekan in Utrecht; prototypes by Jean Prouve; or mid-century pieces of furniture by Isamu Noguchi, which never went into production. Reeditions, furniture produced in millions, or fakes and copies of the type we recently see flooding the market out of Chandigarh, cannot enter the pantheon of “collectible design”.
Unlike in 20th-century material, when seeking to define collectability in design created today, the task is becoming more complex, requiring a new and different set of criteria, and an alternative approach. As the market rapidly expanding, more galleries entering this specialized, newly-founded territory, as the leading design fairs have come to showcase more contemporary than vintage, and as contemporary design has come to replace antiques, the process of acquiring it has come to require more understanding, more connoisseurship, and a deeper awareness of what constitutes greatness in design. “Good design,” told me interior designer Charlie Ferrer who is known to often incorporate it in his interiors, “manifest a concept, exquisite craftsmanship, and a strong contribution to the history of design,” while referring to a cabinet that Mattia Bonetti created for Paul Kasmin Gallery. Clémence Krzentowski, brilliant co-founder of legendary Galerie Kreo told me that to her, any piece of collectible design has to be produced in a limited edition, to manifest the type of statement which would place it in the pantheon of the history of design. True.
When I advise clients on an acquisition of a contemporary object, I want to be convinced that they first and foremost love it, connect to it, and want to live with it. But beyond these immediate factors, it is my responsibility as an advisor to ensure that this object is “collectible”, and to me, it means that it has the potential for a market outside of the gallery, that it has a certain value. In my quest to define “collectible” contemporary design, I have turned to friends and colleagues, consulting with some of the key figures in this unique millennial world. I started my journey with the visionary dealers, then consulted curators, writers, and scholars in my mission to define collectible contemporary design.
While the task of recognizing great design is crucial here, it is important to remember that great design has always been that representing the zeitgeist. Modernism in Germany captured the notion that modern design could act as an agent of change; American design of the postwar era expressed the promised of the Jet Age; and French design of the 60s responded to a fascination with the space race during the Cold War years. When we want to define greatness in contemporary design, we seek for the type of design which would be looked at a hundred years from now by those writing the history as the representation of our time.
Additionally, I believe that a strong correlation between process/material and form; design which is poetic, full of meanings and contents, and while it is functional, function tends to be secondary. To curator and scholar Glenn Adamson, the crowning rule is that in rarity is mandatory in making any design “collectible”. Design writer Pilar Viladas agrees with him, always seeking for scarcity. She defines collectible objects as those that come to raise questions, to investigate materials in new ways, to offer commentary, pointing to Boulders, a series of granite chairs which cutting-edged British designer Max Lamb has recently shown at Salon 94 Design.
Collectible contemporary design was born inside the design gallery, and it is those few pioneering galleries which have taken the leading role in discovering, producing, showcasing, and defining its DNA. With three locations, in Paris, London, and New York, Carpenters Workshop Gallery has created a program of representing and producing new objects by a new generation of progressive designers, several of whom have come out of the Dutch Design Academy Eindhoven. The gallery’s Global Director, Cedric Morisset, believes that design achieves the status of “collectibility”, when it is sculptural, rare (achieved by production of one-off and limited edition), manifesting in craftsmanship, and in an innovative approach to materials. He stresses that this type of design has to be poetic, containing a compelling narrative, because the story is a mandatory aspect of contemporary collectible design. Morisset speaks about the work of French designer Mathieu Lehanneur who has achieved waves and fluidity in a series of marble tables by using digital technology for his recent solo show Liquid Marble, at Carpenters Workshop Gallery.
Marc Benda, who has become the guru of the collectible contemporary design world since establishing Friedman Benda ten years ago with veteran dealer Barry Friedman, has been approached on a daily basis by designers from across the globe seeking to enter the gallery’s program. Benda speaks about Brooklyn-based designer Misha Kahn as epitomizing the essence of collectible contemporary design. “It is design,” he told me, “with no boundaries and total freedom in creation,” and adds that those creating collectible contemporary design seek to express vision, stance, or mood without considering the functionality as a restriction. “In reality, function adds freedom rather than restrict it,” he concluded.
To Richard Wright, founder of Wright, a Chicago-based auction house, and one of the more dynamic personalities in the design world, collectible contemporary design has to demonstrate that connection and conversation with the history of design. But also performance of innovation in concept, material, and process; Mathias Bengtsson embodies all of these factors, according to Wright. I concluded my journey in searching for the ultimate definition of collectible contemporary design in Paris, visiting Galerie BSL and meeting with its energetic founder Béatrice Saint Laurent. Her constant quest across the globe for discovering the great design of our time, has put her gallery on the map. In contemporary design, she seeks for those who constantly challenging and questioning, those who successfuly produce design that combines emotional contents and function, manifesting soul and energy, speaking to both the heart and the intellect.
To conclude, in entering the new territory of collectible contemporary design, the new collector has to perform a sophisticated attitude that includes a quest for greatness in design, developing an understanding in materials, techniques, and design poetry. One has to perform a constant conversation with the marketplace, and most importantly, passion for living with great 21st-century design.
Dr. Daniella Ohad is a design historian, educator, writer, and tastemaker, who received her Ph.D. degree from the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture. For the past two decades, she has been committed to education in design history and theory, history of the interior, material culture, and the decorative arts, with a special expertise in modern and contemporary design culture. She has taught in some of the world’s leading art institutions, and currently leads “Collecting Design: History, Collections, Highlights, the only program on collecting design at the New York School of Interior Design. Her articles and critiques have been published in magazines and peer-review journals, and she is a moderator in various design events across the globe. Dr. Ohad has been a member in various acquisition committees in NYC museums, and her blog Daniella on Design attracts hundreds of thousands of readers weekly. She lives and works in New York City.