Say the words “design art” to Didier Krzentowski, and he makes a funny noise in his throat, as if something is stuck there. You don’t have to speak French to understand that Krzentowski, a founder of Galerie Kreo in Paris, is expressing disdain.
We were at Design Miami, Florida’s annual show of design art, or limited-edition furniture and accessories. The event began in 2005 as a satellite to Art Basel in Miami Beach, to attract elite collectors who want a rarefied sofa to go with their Gerhard Richter. The event is smaller today but is still a curiosity.
This year, Galerie Kreo was introducing a bookcase by Francois Bauchet. The work, called Cellae 9, had the look of thinly sliced gray marble but was made of felt impregnated with resin. Only eight were produced, plus two artist’s proofs. The price was about $29,000. (Like many of the figures quoted in this article, that may rise as the number of available pieces declines.)
Krzentowski, who founded Kreo in 1999 with his wife, Clemence, has long worked with designers to produce objects that have the conceptual depth and rarity of fine art. But he dislikes the idea of lumping art and design into a single category. The pieces he sells are experimental, but they are not freewheeling in the way of many artworks; they have a function or at least allude to one. “Design means constraints,” he said approvingly.
Krzentowski’s funny throat noise may have also come from the fact that, for many, the term “design art” means pretentious and opportunistic.
Blame the art boom. When limited-edition design was canonized as a serious collectible a few years ago (about the time an aluminum lounge chair by Marc Newson fetched nearly $1 million at auction), galleries took notice. Pieces by emerging designers were touted as blue-chip investments. “Editions of 10” appeared in 10 different colors, diminishing rarity with every hue.
Like the rest of the art market, design art crashed with the economy, and for the most part, it has remained grounded. A version of a Ron Arad rocking chair called Loop Loom, which in 2006 sold at auction in Paris for $160,000, went for $75,000 at Phillips de Pury in New York on Tuesday, $5,000 below the low estimate.
That’s the economic picture. The creative picture is something else.
Design Miami showed that design art (or whatever you want to call it) is thriving. The 36 exhibitors included not only contemporary-design veterans like Kreo, R 20th Century of New York and Nilufar of Milan, but also several newly hatched galleries.
Dealers reported satisfying sales, especially now that the fair is across the parking lot from the Miami Beach Convention Center, where Art Basel is based. Until three years ago, the event took place about five miles away, in a retail sector developed as the Miami Design District – not as easy a trek for the Richter-owning sofa buyer. This year, the fair’s organizers reported that more than 30,000 people visited over five days.
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