Take a Seat

6 minute read
Kate Betts

“The days of people hanging important paintings on the wall and then sticking a re-edition Barcelona chair in front of them are over,” says Reed Krakoff, creative director of Coach. Krakoff is talking about the growing interest among art collectors and design aficionados like himself for limited-edition 20th century and contemporary design.

Sitting in his loftlike Manhattan office amid stacks of auction catalogs, art monographs and fashion books, Krakoff points to his Marc Newson Event Horizon desk, one of only eight in the world. (He also has a carbon-fiber-and-corrugated-paper Ron Arad desk.) “It’s as much sculpture as it is functional,” he says. “These kinds of pieces straddle the line. The distinction between art and design is really blurred now.”

The market for rare contemporary design is suddenly in the spotlight as collectors like Krakoff flock to auctions and art shows to snap up coveted limited-edition pieces. And the works of contemporary-design stars like Arad and Newson are beginning to surface in art galleries.

This past January, Larry Gagosian, an art-world kingpin, showed a collection of limited-edition Marc Newson furniture at his Chelsea gallery in New York City. Five years ago the big names everyone was talking about were Jean Prouvé and George Nakashima, but today a raft of living designers–many of them industrial designers by trade–is catching the wave of the booming contemporary-art market. Their success may have to do with their uniqueness, but their work has also been called sexy and easy to like. “Newson has married technology to creative ideas, and he has captured a look people love,” says Krakoff. “Arad is doing stuff with carbon fiber and vacuum-blown aluminum. They are taking amazing technology and harnessing it. It’s very new.”

It’s also getting incredibly expensive. Last June a prototype of Newson’s aluminum Lockheed Lounge, perhaps the most iconic piece in the post-1985 contemporary market, fetched $968,000 at Sotheby’s in New York City–the highest price ever paid for the work of a living designer. According to James Zemaitis, director of 20th century design at Sotheby’s, the average price for a piece at the auction house’s December show, the biggest of the year, was $30,000. But based on the current interest in the market, Zemaitis estimates that over the next few years a rare piece that might sell for $60,000 now could start to escalate into the $250,000 range.

“Price points in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are not that unusual anymore,” says Zesty Meyers of R 20th Century, a New York City gallery that deals in designers like Wendell Castle and Maria Pergay. “We are only in the infancy of this market. There’s a huge potential, and the prices are only going to go up.”

Dealers like Meyers and his partner Evan Snyderman are setting up shop at fairs such as Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, and its newer outpost in Miami, which two years ago spawned a smaller venue called Design Miami. The major auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury are cashing in too, staging big sales of 20th and 21st century design. The Christie’s December 2006 sale of 20th century decorative art and design–the largest of the season–raked in $23.7 million, breaking all records.

“People write about auctions now the way they write about movie-box-office results,” says Zemaitis. When he got to Sotheby’s in 2003, he says, less than 5% of the catalog consisted of postwar design. Now it constitutes more like 60% to 70% of the 20th century auctions. Big prices have attracted a whole new audience too: art collectors and investors looking for something to furnish their real estate investments, or younger collectors in their 30s and 40s who are not interested in the decorative collectibles their parents treasured.

“It’s a cultural shift and a taste shift,” says Zemaitis. “People in their 30s and 40s who are doing most of the buying don’t want to collect the way their parents did, collecting every piece of Rookwood pottery and putting it in a display case. This generation puts less emphasis on the decorative object and more emphasis on furniture. I call it the Wallpaper generation.”

But the boomer generation is also bidding. Meyers credits the trend for what he calls “starchitecture” for creating the rush on contemporary design. “If you’ve seriously been collecting art for 25 years and you’ve got all the best pieces of the artists you collect, and you’re ready to retire, then you’re going to build your own personal museum,” he explains. And in that “museum,” the object you sit on has to be as important as the art on the walls. Meyers estimates that 90% of the people collecting design are contemporary-art collectors. “The art world is eating us up,” he says. “Marc Newson didn’t go to Gagosian and say, ‘Give me a show.'” Zemaitis also predicts that more art galleries will start going to design shows.

The Internet, along with auction houses like Wright in Chicago, has also made the design market more accessible with mid-market price points on Danish and Italian mid-century design pieces, allowing more players to enter the game. “Because of the Internet, collecting design has become a pastime for a lot of people,” says Krakoff. “Twenty-five years ago, the auctions were much less public. But now you can go on sites like 1stdibs.com and bid on them all over the world.”

Krakoff got into collecting 20 years ago when he was a design assistant at Ralph Lauren. He started with Mission-style pieces like Stickley furniture and Tiko and Hampshire art pottery, and then moved on to the furniture of French architect Prouvé. After visiting one of Philippe Starck’s hotels in the mid-1980s, Krakoff fell in love with the French designer’s work. That led to an interest in French contemporary furniture designers like André Dubreuil, Olivier Gagnère and Eric Schmidt.

“I loved the idea that they were people working in today’s vocabulary. I wanted to collect things of my time–which was a necessity anyway because everything else was astronomically expensive,” Krakoff says. More recently he has been buying pieces by Newson, Arad and Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne–for whom he organized a show and published a book last year.

Although it’s not his taste, Krakoff points out a growing trend in the market for more organic styles like those of Castle, John Makepeace and John Dickinson. “That organic look is more fashionable now, maybe as a reaction against what was hot last season, you know, the plastic stuff,” he says.

Like many serious collectors, Krakoff buys pieces because he loves them, not because he thinks he can get the value back. And like many serious collectors, he tends not to sell much. “The challenge with furniture is using it,” Krakoff says with laugh. “I mean, how many desks can you have?”

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