A New Decorative Arts Category–Contemporary Design–Tries to Define Itself in an Increasingly Crowded Field
In the never-ending search for the next must-have, Christie’s New York will hold its first Contemporary Design sale on September 8, dedicated to end-of-the-century stars like Ron Arad, Zaha Hadid and the recently deceased Ettore Sottsass. According to Carina Villinger, head of the sale, Christie’s wants to tap into the enthusiasm for a cluster of big-name contemporary international designers generated by the successful Design Miami show (December) and its sister event Design Miami/Basel (June). These shows celebrate the absolutely current and present a new opportunity in the well-supplied Design market.
Christie’s is marketing the new category not only to their 20th–century furniture buyers but also to their contemporary art clients who, it is hoped, are increasingly interested in furniture that complements their artwork. (Before this sale, Christie’s had tucked contemporary pieces in 20th Century Decorative Art & Design auctions.) If these “tightly edited” 30 lots sell well, the auction house is likely to spin this off as an ongoing freestanding category
All the pieces are either limited editions or prototypes, from the secondary market, and carry estimates ranging from $6,000 to $300,000. Of note: an intimidating nail-studded red ceramic vase by Johanna Grawunder (est. $3-5,000); the Aqua table by Zaha Hadid ($150-200,000); Shiro Kuramata’s acrylic Cabinet de Curiosité ($80-120,000) and, at the high end, Ron Arad’s “D,” a mirror-polished sofa entirely of stainless steel ($200-300,000).
Sotheby’s is also taking a cross-marketing approach to their design sales. The uptown house has already narrowed the field (though not quite as narrow as the Christie’s sale), by creating a Post-War Design sale which they position near their November Contemporary Art auction. In October, Sotheby’s London will hold its own tightly edited sale of Modern & Contemporary Design – not purely contemporary, but close. James Zemaitis, Director of 20th Century Design, says that of the 40 or so lots, at least two dozen are contemporary, with the remainder iconic “designers such as Prouvé and Aalto who had a lasting influence on contemporary designers and artists. The design market in New York has been flat the past six to eight months,” he says, and Sotheby’s is instead targeting the London-based collectors of contemporary art who hail from Russia, the Middle East, India, the Arabian peninsula.
London also offers traffic from the London Design Fair and the Frieze Art Fair during the same week as the Sotheby’s sale – which ought to produce some synergy. Zemaitis regards London as, if not the birthplace of contemporary design, the base for many of the most successful designers (Arad, Hadid, etc.). And everybody in the art world has been feeling the gravitational pull of London—especially in Contemporary art–during the past year.
As for Post-War Design, as everyone who reads knows, it has been the most recent hot dec art category and continues to boom. In October, Rizzoli is publishing “Modern Americana: Studio Furniture form High Craft to High Glam,” by Julie Iovine and Todd Merrill, she a former New York Times writer, and he the head of an eponymous New York gallery (full disclosure: this reporter contributed to the book).
Merrill reports, “A strong shift away from mass-produced and manufactured pieces to custom one-of-a-kind and studio work. The trend for mid-century modern has moved away from Herman Miller and Knoll to studio work of Paul Evans and Nakashima and the custom work of Samuel Marx and Karl Springer.” Paul Donzella of Donzella 20th Century, who sells mostly commissioned mid-century one-of-a-kinds, reports, “Business has been good at the top end of the market, although careful middle and lower market buyers are responding to the troubled economy, and some dealers are feeling the pain.”
With top quality mid-century modern still on a roll, the demand for the really contemporary will soon be tested.