It’s an awkward time for design. And that’s a very good thing. At the Milan furniture fair, the lust of the recent past for limited-edition design objets—those sets of 6 or 12 exotic items made with Fabergé-egg exactness and often unusable except as acquisitions—has been redirected.
Recycling is the mantra now, but so are durability, quality, and beauty. The limited-edition craze made a lot of money for a few people, and even turned Miami into a seasonal mecca for something other than winter sunburn. But it made others uncomfortable with its exclusivity and preciousness, and what appeared to be a blunt rebuttal of modernism’s core values of productivity and access. Critics used expressions like “bulimia” to describe how the hunger for luxury stuff had overwhelmed a healthier appetite for everyday essentials.
Yet the scads of money in play proved irresistible. Designers, and even some architects, wanted in, and it wasn’t always easy to comprehend why a resin-molded table might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apart from the name starting with “Z” attached to it. Karim Rashid, who launched his career sexing up a $12 trash can—the Garbo—helped pioneer new luxe niches in January 2008, with a limited-edition audio player named like a
perfume, Opus N°5.
As with so much else in today’s world, all that feels like the excesses of some ancient regime. Indeed, a bellwether of what lies ahead for design as collectible art is taking place at auction this week. In 2006, industrial designer Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge set the record at $968,000 for the highest price ever paid for a piece of furniture by a living designer. On April 30, another Lockheed—there were four “artist’s proofs” and 10 made—is on the block at Phillips de Pury & Company in London with a surprisingly lowball estimate of $700,000 to $1 million. Results won’t be in until after press time, but I hear a knell tolling.
As queasy as some of these forced rarities made me feel, I am beginning to wonder if the episode was still an important rite of passage for design. It drew media attention to good design—and to the important minutiae of how things were made—like nothing else. It afforded designers the chance to explore new materials and borrow technologies from other industries, almost exactly as the postwar production boom had enticed the likes of Charles and Ray Eames. Without a lot of historicist posturing, it restored a respect for craft as a worthy complement to technology. And it revealed designers to be more than jobbers doing the bidding of manufacturers.
Designers, especially in the United States, don’t often get the respect that is their due. And they rarely get the kind of start-to-finish control that was possible back in 1945, when George Nelson became Herman Miller’s design director, and commenced a golden era of brilliantly designed products that we could all afford to use. Above all, the recent boom times have restored designers’ cred as creative thinkers. And that’s worth quite a lot.