Mass production has come to connote outsourcing and soulless factories where workers labor long hours for little pay to produce our furnishings. The tables, lamps and chairs may sport labels from famous designers, but increasingly for many consumers, the signatures don’t add intrinsic value to mass-produced commodities. It often is unclear where a table was assembled and whether it is solid rosewood or pressed wood. Worst of all is that thanks to FedEx and Amazon, chances are that the seemingly rare vase or the rug that you discovered during your last intercontinental trip is no longer that hard to find.
The increasing uniformity of domestic environments and workspaces throughout the world is fueling a reactionary appetite for limited edition works of design that double as art objects. Indeed, collectible design is all the rage these days. At the Sotheby’s Design auction in London this past November, sales were off the charts. A prototype from an edition of two of Surface Table, a sleek, black-lacquered carbon fiber coffee table by industrial designer Terrence Woodgate and design engineer John Barnard fetched $294,000, more than five times its estimate. A prototype of Gio Cabinet, an elaborately patterned affair from an edition of six, which was crafted from rosewood, bronze, polished brass and glass by Achille Salvagni fetched $139,579, triple its estimate.
An Important Role to Play
In New York, museum stores and new crop of design stores and galleries are getting in on the action. The Museum of Modern Art Design Store, which recently launched a limited edition of Robert Rauschenberg skateboard, is always working to gain exclusive rights to a product and to be the first to launch it. Museum of Modern Art director of merchandising Emmanuel Plat says that one factor driving the increasing appeal of limited editions is the Internet. “With shopping being so easy thanks to the Internet, most people can buy anything, anytime from anywhere,” he says, “Limited editions enable people to own objects that few others have.”
One of the highest-profile independent stores in New York selling limited editions is Atelier Courbet, a three-year-old establishment in an old warehouse building in Manhattan’s trendy NolIta neighborhood, which was started by the international art and design consultant Melanie Courbet. She is responsible for introducing the Parisian master-craftsmen Domeau & Peres to New York and she also has developed limited-edition furniture with the likes of Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Martin Szekely, Eric Jourdan, Pharrell Williams and Domeau & Peres.
Courbet generally discovers that talents she represents at her atelier through a network of friends and acquaintances that she socializes with at dinner parties and art openings. She then makes design suggestions and introductions such as the time she connected Frank Gehry and Vladimir Kagan, who were looking to manufacture a limited-edition collection of rugs for her store, to a group of weavers in Nepal.
Not Only for the Elite Designers
Although there are big names behind many of the products she sells, Courbet insists that the branding is not the point. An example is a limited run of vases designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid. “The value is not so much about the signature of Zaha Hadid,” she says, “The reason for the appeal is there is almost 4 kilos of silver and the fabrication and the material.”
Limited-edition design objects can command stratospheric prices but Courbet says that the furniture at her atelier should not be bought for investment. “The values and the prices are not based on the trading trends about an artist signature,” she says. “For example, a porcelain vase or a silver tea set was as expensive a hundred years ago as it is today; the fluctuations based on the price of the silver. These are timeless family heirlooms and they are about connecting the generations.”
Exploring the World for Inspiration
A markedly different approach is on display at another relatively new design gallery called Chamber, which is located at the epicenter of the New York’s art gallery scene under The High Line in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood. At only three years old, Chamber shows an eclectic assortment of rare and unusual ephemera that can range from dinosaur bones to hand axes made in 6000 BC to limited edition industrial design objects.
“Chamber’s design philosophy is to create a 21st-century cabinet of curiosities comparable to the ones that inspired collectors of exotic ephemera in the 19th century,” says Michael Vince Snyder, the gallery’s director, adding, “You would have things brought together by philosophers or scientists that would constitute souvenirs from other cultures: animal specimens, plants, microscopes and time pieces—all of those things were inspired by the exploration of the world.”
Each year, Chamber features work chosen by a new curator. The current exhibit is curated by Matylda Krzykowski, a designer focused on collaborative and performance-based projects. Current items on display include Cruise Blue3/Blue9, a large hand-woven carpet made from high-performance silicon cord made by the designers Louie Rigano and Gil Muller. Another industrial chic item was Neon Chandelier by Jochen Holz, which consisted of curved fluorescent glass tubes in different colors. Some of these collectible design objects operate on a subtle level, such as Blue Leather Shelf by Tina Roeder, a simple two-level unit that distinguishes itself through the material used in its manufacture.
Finding Needles in a Haystack
Snyder says that his team casts a wide net when scouting for talent at design fairs and schools such as London’s Royal College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design. “You always have to have your eyes wide open and be ready to be surprised,” he says. Last year, for example, the Chamber curatorial team found the Chilean woodworking artist Nicholas Aracena Müller on Instagram and brought him to New York for a performance piece, where he worked inside the gallery crafting one of a kind benches and tables from reclaimed wood.
Of course nurturing limited-edition collectible design involves inspiration and tireless work on the part of a gallery or a museum shop. “Developing products, whether limited editions or not, requires a lot of steps as well as risk,” says MoMA’s Plat. “Few institutions have the bandwidth to do so.”