Just before Christmas, video-artist Nam June Paik’s ironic little aluminium robot with industrial-type blinker lights was sold at a New York contemporary art auction for the reasonable sum of $1600. This cute little hominid with a red light in the centre of its chest, of which only 90 copies were made, had certainly become a totem object. But it was also, quite simply, a lamp.
A couple of weeks earlier, the Nino Rota plastic swivelling armchair designed by Ron Arad and produced by Cappellini in 1990 - in only about 90 pieces on account of the high production costs - went under the hammer, again for the reasonable price at 1300 Euros.
This is one indication of how two very distinct worlds - art and design - are weighing in at similar market values for products made around the same time by creators of similar distinction, and boasting the same ‘rarity index’.
Another indication is the phenomenon of important art galleries like Zurich’s Bischofberger showing works both by their ‘resident’ artists and designers. Excluded until recently from the inner sanctum of art circles, some designers - especially those whose longstanding collaboration with famous manufacturers has always generated highly crafted, complex articles - have today become the darlings of the galleries. The works of Sottsass, Arad, Pesce, Newson, the Campana brothers, Mollino, Kuramata - it’s just a question of time for Ponti - now rub shoulders with the likes of Barcelò, Basquiat, Chia, Franz West, Pardo, Atelier Van Lieshout or Rehberger.
There’s a third aspect. In these hardly booming days, when research is defensive or at best market oriented, some galleries have commissioned small series or single articles from designers, bravely stepping in to fill the gap left by manufacturers.
The bravest include Parisians Kreo and Mouvements Modernes, New Yorkers Barry Friedman and Cristina Grajales, David Gill in London, Design Gallery, Luisa Delle Piane and Post Design in Milan.
In the eighties, several prestigious Italian firms did venture into the special collections domain. Zanotta created Zabro (1985), Memphis had its visionary collection Meta Memphis (1989), and B&B, riding the wave of new interest in celebrity architecture, launched Le Arti Industriali (1989), a collection that tried to reconcile architecture and design.
But that was back when, sponsoring these special productions, producers knew they were fostering design as a whole. And even if the economic spin-offs were nil, these were times when practically everybody was making healthy profits. Today few can afford to be so generous. And so it’s the galleries specialising in contemporary art, and modern and vintage design to promote collections. The incentive is not the same as in the past, however. Today gallery owners are beginning to see design as a rarity, a universal phenomenon inversely proportional to the availability of talent, in striking contrast to the eighties. For design produced today has lost momentum. It is dull and expensive. Or a parody of what it was during the thirties, fifties and seventies. It’s symptomatic how the new brands developed around design have cynically exploited this parody of design history, producing droves of re-editions, not so much to celebrate a glorious past as to fill a void. But they should be warned! People are capable of distinguishing the true value of an archetype from a rehash of an old formula. In fact re-editions of this kind are regularly market flops. Which stands to reason, for the true archetype has never been removed from the catalogue, and products that are reintroduced are hardly likely to make a profitable come-back.
The art world was quick off its feet to see this as a ‘yearning for quality’, and is drawing design into its fold.
Added to this, designer articles are few in number, and what remains of a designer production is often not more than the production of an artist - whose works don’t run the risk of being worn down by use! If the average production of an artist is 6-8000 works, the total stock of contemporary designer articles is not far off that figure.
For the record, it has to be remembered that already back in the sixties Dino Gavina recognised what would happen. His catalogues carried current design production and ‘high’ or ‘artistic’ design. This skilful mix of everyday design products - classic re-editions or furniture from purists like Takahama - and ‘difficult’ articles prompted by Gavina’s personal fascination with post-surrealism, was prescient.
20th century art will become increasingly prized as will the design produced during that fantastic century. And the availability of designer articles is only apparently wide for although turned out by a mass production formula, they have also been subject to the formula of industrial destruction, with the result that articles made by 19th century craftsmen, who were part of an era when things were made to last, are today much more plentiful. So design is condemned to becoming a rarity. At the same time, however, production quality has generally become widespread. With the result that the gap is widening between the normal, quality (Ikea) article and quality design that is increasingly on its way to becoming an exceptional gallery piece.
In recent years Italians have learned to buy minimal, moral and eco-friendly “furnishing goods” from the likes of Ikea. Now the international art circuit is proposing top-end designer articles where Italian design features largely. At the same time, there are serious doubts about what until ten years ago was called design: those cumbersome pieces of furniture - difficult to store and distribute yet easy to copy at lower cost - that lie somewhere in the no man’s land between merchandise and the single work of art.
Manolo de Giorgi